Friday, August 23, 2019

Forgotten Books: HOMBRE by Elmore Leonard (1961)

WARNING! There will be a SPOILER or two later in this review, so if you haven't read this book and intend to, you'd best click off to another blog!

One of the gents in the Western apa Owlhoot, whose opinion I value and admire, has been taking me to task for my indifference to the Western short stories of Elmore Leonard. Okay, I figured, maybe the novels will be better. Maybe they'll have actual stories, instead of guys just riding around the countryside and talking tough. 

So I read Hombre. Does it tell a story? Yeah, I must admit it does, but it was so long in coming that by the time it arrived I didn't really care. 

Didn't Really Care pretty much sums up my reaction to the first 3/4 of this book. The first person narration is imaginative and nicely written (everything by E.L. is nicely written), but the narrator is unrelentingly wimpy, and does absolutely nothing but take up space until it's all over, when he rides for help. Leonard's intent, I suppose, was to give us an average, realistic Westerner who is neither a hero nor a villain. A noble endeavor, but the guy was just annoying.

The book begins as sort of a twisted vision of Stagecoach, with a group of passengers riding in a mud-wagon to (hopefully) Bisbee. Along with the wimpy narrator they are: A crooked Indian Agent and his fickle wife, a bully who turns out to be a bad guy, a girl who recently spent a month in captivity with Apaches, and Hombre, whose adopted name is John Russell. Russell is thought to be 3/4 Anglo and 1/4 Mexican, but lived most of his life with Apaches, and still thinks like one. Piloting the wagon is a wishy-washy Mexican, who's almost as annoying as the narrator. Then three more bad guys ambush the wagon, making off with the fickle wife and the Agent's ill-gotten gains. Ho hum.

This ensemble cast could have been a recipe for high drama. Instead, they just whine and snipe at each other as they struggle to survive, and for the first half of the book I didn't give a damn if any of them made it or not. At about the midway point the crooked Indian Agent became such a bastard that I wanted him to die. And at the 3/4 point the ex-captive girl became so annoying I was praying for somebody to shoot her.  

And that's pretty much it, until the very end, when Hombre John Russell (here comes the biggest SPOILER) sacrifices himself to save the others. That's when the book finally finds its story, but it only lasts a few pages. After Russell was dead, I sort of wished he wasn't. And that, I suppose, was the whole point of the book. But was it worth the wait? Well, no. And the Agent and the girl were still alive - and as annoying as ever - so I was triply displeased. 

Characterization is as follows: The Narrator, just a wimp - nothing more, nothing less. The Girl, a one-dimensional young harpy (with her background, she should have been more). The Indian Agent, a one-dimensional scoundrel. Also one-dimensional are the Wife and the four Bad Guys. Only two characters rise above that. One is the Mexican wagon driver, who exhibits both good and bad traits. 

The other is John Russell, who the book is supposed to be about. Through the narrator's eyes, we see behavior that is sometimes almost admirable, sometimes not (though he might be just misunderstood), and often just enigmatic. In the final pages he comes alive and shows us what he's made of. But Leonard leaves us wondering: Is what we see at the end a revelation of what his character was all along, or are we supposed to think the events of the story changed him for the better (and deader)? My guess is it's the latter, but for me it was too little too late. A good ending is not enough to wipe away the first 95%, which was alternately dreary, unpleasant and boring.

Is the movie version better? I don't know, and ain't likely to find out. Will I read more Leonard? Sure. His mysteries are great. But will I read more of his Westerns? Hm......


Todd Mason said...

Haven't read the novel yet; the film is pretty much a downer, if a watchable one.

Other Leonard wester fiction does tend to be grim, but good.

Cap'n Bob said...

All the Leonards I've read were good, but I haven't read this one. I did see the movie, and it was damn good, IMHO. It's hard to go wrong with Paul Newman and Richard Boone.

Maurice said...

Sounds like you made up your mind against the book before you read it. Why did you even bother? You hated EL's western short stories to begin with, so why bother with this novel? Oh well, different strokes and all that.......