This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Big With Vengeance: Review

Genre:Literature & Fiction
Author:Cecil Snyder
Many, many years ago, as a nine or ten year old, I discovered Westerns. Specifically, I discovered the “Sudden” series of novels written - back in the 1930s – by Oliver Strange, revolving around the eponymous hero, James Green alias Sudden, outlaw-turned-lawman and fastest gun in the West.

This Sudden was – to my ten-year-old brain – a fascinating character. He was, naturally, tall, dark, and handsome, not to mention athletic as hell and honest as the day was long. He was also faster than the speed of light with his six-shooters; so fast, indeed, that nobody could ever see his hands move when he drew his .44s. He could, also, shoot the flame off a matchstick without even aiming. One of the high points of any Sudden book was anticipating what would happen to someone unwise enough to pick a fight with him. Since one knew exactly what would happen, it was immensely satisfying to see Sudden give the villain his just desserts.

Those books were absolutely formulaic. The plot went as follows: there was a town with two warring ranches, or being preyed on by a gang of roughnecks from a ranch. There was the corrupt and cowardly sheriff. There was the good rancher, who was a widower (he was always a widower; none of these books ever had a rancher with a living wife, and in general female characters were very thin on the ground) with a lovely daughter. There was this all-round nice guy who happened to love the rancher’s daughter but for certain reasons (said reasons all basically had to do with his weakness) couldn’t get her. The head villain lusted after this rancher’s daughter too, and made one standard attempt to forcibly kiss her on the lips (I assume this was meant to be a euphemism for attempted rape). This, and a fist-fight between Sudden and the head villain, was compulsorily part of the books.

Anyway, enter Sudden (a college graduate, as was casually mentioned in the first book of the series), riding his black horse, Nigger (these books were written back when the word wasn’t taboo), said Nigger being amenable to being ridden only by Sudden (in several books there was a scene where the head villain would try to buy the horse and Sudden would promise to give him Nigger if he could ride him for five minutes. The villain usually lasted thirty seconds). Some gunplay later, Sudden would wipe out the villains, restore the good rancher’s property, and the nice weak guy would get the girl. Sudden would ride into the sunset, off to do some more shootin’.

I was hooked on Sudden, both as written by Strange and revived in the fifties by one Frederick H. Christian in a further series of formulaic novels; Louis L’Amour and other western writers (especially Max Brand) sometimes peeked above my bibliographic horizon, but never to the extent of planting a flag. “Western” for me meant Sudden, and Sudden alone.

Not that I wanted to be a cowboy, you understand. My fantasies ran in another direction, that of the intrepid fighter pilot. But the stories were fantastic escapism. And being predictable as the sunrise, they were also soothing. You knew what was coming, so you never had to think.

And then one day – it was in early 1982, so I must have been eleven years old – I got a present. It was a hardcover, thick and well-bound, with the image of a bearded man with a Stetson, gun-belt, and a Native American scalp, feathers and all, in one hand, on the dust jacket. It was by an author I’d never heard of before, Cecil Snyder. The name of the book was “Big With Vengeance.” (The title came from a ditty printed on the title page: “When a barber and a collier fight/ The barber beats the luckless collier white/ The dusty collier heaves his ponderous sack/ And big with vengeance beats the barber black./ In comes the brick dust man, with grime o’erspread/And beats the barber and the collier red./Black white and red in various clouds are tossed/And in the dust they raise the combatants are lost.”)

It wasn’t a Western, said the blurb on the back cover, and it wasn’t, though it was set in the mid-west of the USA in the late 1860s. And it had no cattlemen, no rustlers, and there was certainly no faster-than-light gunslinger roaming the scenery fighting for truth, justice, and the American Way.

It told, in part in flashbacks, the story of a man named Klee, whose wife and stepdaughter had been raped and disembowelled by Native Americans on one of the wagon trails along which settlers went west in order to take over the prairie and throw the ignorant redskins off their ancestral hunting grounds. Klee, who was the sole survivor of the massacre, resolved to become a professional redskin hunter (this was still the time when there was a bounty on Native American scalps) in order to take revenge for the killings of his family.

So, financed and trained by his former father-in-law, he got himself guns and a horse and began roaming the wild, living off the land and killing any Native American he happened to encounter. One day he saw a party of three – two braves and a young squaw – with horses and a dog. He made a mistake; he spared the lives of one horse, the dog, and the squaw, whom he turned into a sex slave (REALLY not a Western, this one; no euphemisms here). As he continues on his way, he and the girl (whose tribe never becomes clear, nor her name; it might be Red Bird or Bird-Who-Flies, and Klee names her Many-Coloured Bird) form a strange and tacit alliance against both Native Americans and other whites they encounter. It seems that they might actually form a deeper bond, and this might be a love story of a different type. But nothing is ever what it seems, and revenge, it turns out, may be a dish best eaten cold, after all.

I’ll be honest – at first I HATED the book. I got through it with difficulty and outrage. Where was the heroism? Where was the faster-than-light gunplay? Where were the cold-hearted villains and the horse nobody could ride? Why was there not the slightest bit of optimism anywhere in the story? What the fuck was this?

It took time for me to return to the book. I re-read it as a sixteen year old, as they say, with new eyes. And by then I knew it was one of the better books I’d read till then. It remains one of the better books I’ve read till this day.

In the meantime, I’d read more about the real American cowboy; a poor, overworked labourer, living in conditions verging on the subhuman, who rarely even owned the horse he rode (it was generally ranch property). Many were black or Native American, a fact you wouldn’t get to know from the average Western, and a large proportion was ex-military. Far from fighting each other in saloon duels, the cowboys generally kept their weapons to themselves, and far from a college education a la Sudden, they were lucky if they could “draw a cow on a slate and mark a brand on it”.

No...Sudden wasn’t quite so quick anymore.

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