Thursday, March 12, 2015

THE SHOOTIST by Glendon Swarthout


John Bernard Books has found out he has terminal prostate cancer.

Books is an aging but notorious gunman, who is known across the frontier for being dangerously quick on the draw, for loving women, and for killing over thirty men. So it comes to his dismay that he is destined to die an undignified and unremarkable death, taken down by a disease in his crotch. He doesn't have long to live and pretty soon news of his condition spreads around town. But J.B. Books is determined to die with some semblance of dignity.
And then, emptied, on hands and knees, head hanging over his own spew, teeth chattering with cold, in that animal posture he knew fear for the first time in his adult life.
 I was really taken with this outstanding novel and this great character: a portrait of a dying man who must figure out the best way to make his last stand in life. Author Glendon Swarthout creates a three-dimensional character out of the conventionally one-dimensional Western antihero. On the outside Books is trying to portray the same stoicism and grit that he's known for, but on the inside is a man terrified of dying the way he is. Not only is he forced to look back on his life and decide if it was truly worth anything, but he also has to deal with the town's sudden interest in his imminent death, interest both curious and nefarious, but everyone looking to profit one way or another.

A great theme that is prevalent throughout the book is the changing times. It is the turn of the 20th century, year 1901, and the West is changing from the frontier that it was to a more modern, civilized place. And the aging gunman is part of those dying times. He's constantly reminded of this in every new invention he sees, or by the newspaper articles he reads to pass the time.
She looked at him bravely now for the first time, at his face, the face from which a child had fled, and drew breath. She rose. Her eyes filled.
She knew.
He took her in his arms and kissed her ardently. Men in their hosts, young and old, innocent and corrupt, had paid her for her favors, but she put her arms about him of her own free will as though to give him what she could in recompense for this, the last gift she guessed, of his manhood.
It was a real joy reading this book, which was tender and mournful, like a melancholy fable, downright funny at times, and gorgeously written. Swarthout seems to always use just the right words; I felt like every page had a line or paragraph I wanted to make note of. The book also contains a stunning classic Western bar shootout that is well-crafted, dark, and nihilistic.

I would agree with critics that this is one of the best Western novels ever written (definitely one of the best that I've read). It's about courage, dignity and throwing up a middle finger to death, taking control of your life and the the way you leave it.
He thought: I will not break. I won't tell anybody what a tight I am in. I will keep my pride. And my guns loaded to the last.

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