Monday, November 25, 2013

Desmond Berry's "The Chivalry of Crime": Book Review

This epic wraps the core of Jesse James' saga within a teenager's obsession to buy a pistol like the one that pitiless bankrobber wielded. Joshua Beynon meets Bob Ford, the infamous executor of Jesse, and Ford entangles Josh into his own machinations as he tries to make his own life over in Weaver, Colorado, a few years after the death of his former comrade Jesse. Welsh novelist Desmond Barry skillfully enters the indirect first-person narration via Josh, Bob, and Jesse in turn, and his blunt, brutal, or enraptured cadences filter through these three men to present the "burned lands" of the Civil War border skirmishes in Kansas and Missouri, and then a mining town in the degraded Rockies.

Here's a few samples of Barry's style. "The sheriff had the air of a man taking a goose to slaughter, sad to lose it, but hungry, too." (93) " An Osage scout arrives in the guerrilla's midst: "The horseman stared up at him as if he had just emerged through a rupture in time and was a vision unwanted by them." (145) {This image recurs in a very different 2004 novel I've also reviewed by Barry, "Cressida's Bed."} Amidst Jesse's quarrelsome, suspicious, insular clan: "The whole kitchen was transformed into a silent waltz of impending violence." (251)

There's a compelling theme of how life's balance tends to be controlled by those connivers in league with the deceitful, the (il-)legal, and the cynical, and how easily an lowlier person's less privileged place in the social hierarchy can be easily and fatally upset by violence. Early on, Josh considers the entrance of Ford and the sudden plunge into power and surrender that this encounter sets in motion. Bob Ford traces the history of violence that Josh now enters in 1892: "It's just cause and effect, boy." (101) The lack of control when forces come down to invade one's life crushes many in this challenging, densely told narrative. In unravelling Josh's role in this fated, unpredictable situation, Ford must reveal his own part in the chain of guns and killers, and this sets up the middle chapters, beginning during the Civil War and ending in 1882, when Jesse learns to come on as an extra and then to dominate center stage. Later, Bob Ford explains to Josh: "When you kill someone, you unleash a force in nature that turns the world agin you. It ain't like killing an animal. It is as if something has tilted off-kilter and nature seeks to put it to rights, no matter what the cause of the killing." (363)

Barry packs an impressive amount of research into 470 thoughtful, lively pages. He acknowledges The Pogues' song on their debut LP as inspiring him to wonder how the story of Jesse James might sound coming from the "coward" who shot him down. Closing this, suffice to say that you learn--and may well empathize with--why an associate of Jesse might well come to make the decision he did.

The dust jacket notes how Barry grew up immersed in tales of the American West, and his pacing, diction, dialogue, and interior monologue convey the feel of the time when outside of fragments of the Bible or Shakespeare, a frontier character might well think and speak in sawed-off cadences, sheared of nearly all affectation. Barry avoids cliche and you press on not knowing what happens next. A prizefight, a eulogy, the jittery nature of guns in the hands of their uneasy possessors, bank robberies, a horse race, police interrogations, Federal depredations and Confederate reprisals, guerrilla war, butchery, betrayal, and revenge: scenes come across with near-photographic vividness. Barry gets the spoken rhythms right, and despite some languid parts later in the story, which begins and ends well, this 2000 novel is recommended. It may wear down a reader not as captivated by considerable amounts of graphic violence and stoic fortitude, but Barry hones his style to fit his ever-closing circle of haunted and desperate men who must cut each other down to survive.

I read this in two-and-a-half days; it kept me up late. A good sign of a gripping tale, when despite the knowledge of Jesse's fate, the manner in which that well-rounded tragic but increasingly cruel figure evolves from young victim of Union savagery to hesitant bushwhacker defending the Confederacy to ruthless, always rationalizing and calculating fugitive determined to advance the Lost Cause and then his own gains as the pitiless head of the James Gang makes for compelling tale-telling. Some in the Gang and as a posse's associates don't receive the depth created for key protagonists, but this may be Barry's decision so as to emphasize how they're pawns of the kings and knights here. While the last vignette ends when it seems another story could have emerged, given its date and place, and while the open-ended nature of the conclusion makes one wonder why Barry stopped when he chose, it's an imaginative and, overall, convincing re-creation of just over a century ago. (Amazon US 12-31-12)

No comments: