Thursday, September 25, 2008

43. Hombre by Elmore Leonard

Hombre pictureI've heard a lot of good stuff about Elmore Leonard's westerns. He wrote them at the beginning of his career and they did fairly well but he moved onto crime at some point and never looked back. I was told that his westerns are quite easy to find, but it took me a trip to Winnipeg!

Hombre is about a final stage coach run from an outpost where the coaches are shutting down because the train has made them obsolete (doing the same to the little towns that used to service the coach stops). It's not actually a stage coach, but a "mud wagon", a smaller vehicle that was usually used by the coach company to bring supplies out. It's less comfortable but more versatile. The final run is forced upon the company by various people who need to make the trip and it is this varied cast of characters, and one in particular, Hombre, that drive the story.

There is the boss of the outfit, his assistant who is the narrator, a younger woman who had been captured by Apaches and a couple, the husband of whom was a Station Agent, responsible for administering trade with the natives. A tough cattle hand shows up at the last minute and forces an ex-soldier out of the coach. And then there is Hombre, who is seen only through the eyes of the narrator. Over the course of the beginning of the book, we learn that he is a white man who had lived in Mexico and then with the indians and ended up as a deputy on the reservation. He had "gone native" and is often mistaken for an indian. He says little, just enough to let it be know that he has an issue with the way the natives are treated. He ends up sitting outside on the mud wagon with the boss and driver because of objections by the Station Agent.

The setup is this little cramped wagon in the middle of the desert seething with racial and sexual tension. The four people inside are crammed knee to knee and it is suggested that the wife of the Station Agent is too young and not faithful. It's actually quite rich and subtle stuff. And then shit happens and we learn a lot more about everybody. It's all done very subtly, though, with a light touch. The narrator himself is young but its written from the perspective of someone looking back and trying to figure it all out.

When I read this, what come to mind was Cormac Macarthy. Unfortunately, what should happen is that we read Macarthy and then Elmore Leonard comes to mind. And probably a few other western authors. Because Leonard did this stuff first and did it well, if not better. This is a dark and realistic look at a very mean wild west, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between the whites and the aboriginals. It is very sympathetic to the latter group, but ultimately moves beyond to damn us all. Nobody wins in this book and there is no real justice. Just a tiny slice of bravery and sacrifice that makes everyone else look even worse than they already did.

Also only took 188 pages to do this and do it effectively. Great stuff.


Jason L said...

No frikken way! I recently picked up 3 Elmore Leonard westerns and an early Zane Grey in the hopes of checking out the western genre. Right now I am reading one called Valdez is Coming. Synchronicity!

Buzby said...

Way!! I also picked up a Zane Grey when I was in the Van this summer, unfortunately, it is still sitting on my shelf.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Awesome! We're like Los Tres Hombres. Back in the saddle!

Doc said...

YES. I have been proselytizing for Leonard's westerns for years. ( I think they are awesome. You have caught the feel of them perfectly. Character driven, brutal, and concise!