Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Zane Grey: Tolstoy With Spurs

Over the years, many people have introduced me to books and authors. Zane Grey is the first author recommended to me by a fictional chracter, one Col. Sherman T. Potter, of MASH fame.

Why read a book recommneded by a fictional Korean War colonel and surgeon, aside from the fact that Potter ranks as one of the five top shouters ever to have appeared on television? I could write a lot here about how Col. Potter, acting as a bridge between the old generation and the new generation (at least as generations were related to each other in the early 1950s) also acts as a bridge between the culture of the 20s and 30s to today, but that seems a little disingenious. I've bridged that gap before, primarily through reading the works of John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis.

I think, rather, that this has to do with genre. To this point, the closes I've ever come to the western genre is through the books of Farley Mowat, a Canadian who transported the genre of man against nature from its traditional western setting to that of the Arctic. So to hear Col. Potter sing the praises of Sane Grey's western novels over the years finally inspired me to pick one up and give it a read. And, perhaps, Charles Emerson Winchester III's assessment of Grey "Tolstoy with spurs," also pushed me to read one of his books, just to see if Winchester is as full of hot air as I suspect.

I admit to mixed feelings. Grey writes an excellent story and has a brilliant eye for describing not only the landscapes of the west, but also writes a pretty good fight scene, viz:

Adam's grim intention was to hang on to both of them so neither could run to get a weapon. To that end he locked a hold on each. They began a whirling, wrestling, thudding battle. To make sure of them, Adam had handicapped himself. He could not swing his mallet-like fists and he had not been fortunate enough to grip their throats. So, rolling over and over with them, he took the rain of blows, swinging them back, heaving his weight upon them. Foot by foot he won his way farther and farther from where the guns lay. If one yelling robber surged half erect, Adam swung the other to trip him. And once inside the wide doorway of that octagon structure, Adam rose with the struggling men, an iron hand clutching each, and, swinging them wide apart, by giant effort he brought them back into solid and staggering impact.

Given that the novel was published in 1923, there are some bits of dialogue, notably the cliched Indian patois and the cliche of the hardened Western woman, that sound tinny to modern ears. But part of me suspects that some modern ears, mine included, just might be too ful of earwax to appreciate the dialogue taken in its historical context -- we don't mind, after all, the archaic words Shakespeare uses, do we?

So I enjoyed the book. Grey writes from a different time -- he was born in 1872 and died in 1939-- and I enjoyed hearing from that world. Some critics say his writing is overblown and thta it idolizes too much the western ideal, while others say his writing and characters is remniscient of Beowulf, in that these larger-than-life characters are not meant to be real, but ideal. As Grey himself once said “Realism is death to me. I cannot stand life as it is," I'm inclined to believe the latter critics.

Myself, I see a lot of Clark Ashton-Smith in Grey's writing, though I'm fairly sure neither author crossed paths. Grey's characters are under a geas, just as Ashton-Smith's fanciful characters are. Both authors deftly pit man against nature and man against the gods, Grey's gods being the ideals of manlihood and the reverence of nature.

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