December, 2012

Book Review: Shavetail

December 30th, 2012

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The period between Christmas and the New Year is traditionally supposed to be a time of reflection, when we all look back at the things we’ve done, the various screw-ups we’ve committed, and resolve to do better. Since I might well die of old age before I could list all my screw-ups, I decided to simplify things and go straight to step two. I resolved to take reasoned and practical steps to boost my book sales. I decided to start by taking the advice of someone who was doing better than I.

I had a marketing brainstorming session with a successful self-published author of romance novels who told me, among many bits of excellent advice, that my blog should focus on certain key subjects designed to attract potential readers of my books. (She said it all much better than that; I’m just putting it in baby talk for purposes of simplification.) It is, actually, advice I’ve been given before, and it goes along with the advice given to me, both by my romance writer friend and others, to stick to a single genre with my books. Build up a reputation as a Western writer, or as a mystery writer, or—presumably—a romance writer, or whatever. It’s sound advice, and the proof is reflected in statistics of book sales by category.

So, just to show that I have absolutely no business savvy whatsoever—or practical commonsense, or the good sense to accept good advice, or even the strength of character to stick to my own resolutions—I intend to branch out even further. I’m going to start reviewing books that I especially like. I’m not going to try and mold myself into a critic. I won’t review books I don’t like because if I really don’t like a book I almost certainly won’t finish it, so why bother saying anything negative about something I haven’t bothered to read? But going on the premise that people who read this blog are almost certainly people who like to read, why not tell them which books have really excited me?

With that in mind, I’m going to start with Shavetail. I don’t remember how I stumbled across Thomas Cobb, but I wanted to see how he had handled something in one of his books, and I ordered With Blood in Their Eyes, his chilling and meticulously researched fictionalized account of the bloodiest and deadliest shootout in Arizona history. I’ll review With Blood in Their Eyes later, but for the nonce, suffice it to say I liked it so much I ordered his other two novels, Shavetail, and the one he is most famous for, Crazy Heart. That one I’m sure you’ve heard of because it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie with Jeff Bridges.

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It’s a wonderful thing to discover a writer whose work is so compelling that you can’t wait to lay your hands on everything he’s ever done. That’s how good Thomas Cobb is. It’s like the first time you read anything by P.G. Wodehouse: you steal money from your mother’s purse and rush out to buy everything he ever wrote which, in the case of P. G. Wodehouse, means you have to steal quite a lot of money. Wodehouse was prolific and lived to be ninety-three, writing right up to the end. Thomas Cobb has only written the three novels, so I didn’t have to mug any of the local elementary school children to buy his books. I’ve already written a review for Amazon, so I’ll just copy it here:

Shavetail has been characterized as a Western, but to paraphrase the great Duke Ellington, there are only two kinds of books, the good kind and the other kind. Shavetail transcends the good kind to peak in the rarified air of great novels. This is a story of redemption and coming of age in a brutal world where all the romance and mythology of the West have been deconstructed into a reality as confused and uncertain and frequently terrifying as today’s news. Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Unforgiven, this novel takes place behind the façade of honor and courage and legend. Writing in exquisite prose, both lean and elegiac, Thomas Cobb gives us unforgettable characters, all of them running away from those things that can never be run away from. It takes place in some of the harshest land in the West, in 1871, and there are heroes and villains, cavalry and Apaches, horses and a girl, all the ingredients of the traditional Western, but in Cobb’s hands those things become mixed with the ambiguity of reality, so that nothing is what it seems. The line between good and evil is as blurred as life is, where good intentions and bad intentions frequently have the same result: “If the United States can’t kill someone with a twelve-pound howitzer, they’ll throw money at him until he’s dead. It’s the way the government does business, and all that the government does is business. Look around at what’s here. What ain’t spoiled is what the government hasn’t had the time to spoil. And you know what we are? We’re the spoilers…”

It’s hard to say if the themes that parallel some of today’s issues were intentional or a subconscious choice by an author who grew up in the Vietnam era, but two things are beyond dispute: All of Cobb’s characters—his young hero, the well-intentioned men his young hero admires, the ill-intentioned man he fears but must work with, even characters who never actually appear in the story (I don’t want to give too much away)—are as real and far more unforgettable than any you have read about in a long time. They are so singular and so memorable that they achieve a kind of Dickensian, prototypical stature.

The other indisputable thing about Shavetail is that you will not be able to stop turning the pages. To quote the great character actor Pat Buttram, who became famous as Gene Autry’s sidekick in a very different kind of Western: “If you don’t like this, you don’t like chocolate cake.”

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