Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Heart of the Sunset by Rex Beach

Author Rex Beach

Our fathers used to like that sort of piece, I believe.  The longer I live, Dorian, the more keenly I feel that whatever was good enough for our fathers is not good enough for us.  – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Few things can gladden the heart more than reading the over-ripe melodrama of our grandparents.  One master of this form was novelist Rex Beach (1877 – 1949), who was also a playwright and Olympic water polo player.  His most famous novel is undoubtedly The Spoilers, written in 1906.  It is one of those gloriously sprawling potboilers detailing the taming of Alaska, complete with miners, prospectors and corrupt government officials.  (Alas, Sarah Palin is nothing new…)  The Spoilers was adapted for the movies at least five times, the lead played by both Gary Cooper and John Wayne in different versions.  His 1909 opus The Silver Horde (another Alaska story) was twice adapted for movies, once starring Joel McCrea.
Beach came to his adventure tales honestly.  He was born in Atwood, Michigan to a prominent family and was a successful lawyer before he succumbed to gold fever and went to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush.  He turned to writing after the failure of his prospecting plans – only to find gold of another kind with a wildly successful writing career.  He knocked out novels and plays, along with producing the odd film-adaptation of his own work, and became quite a rich man.  In 1949, two years after the death of his wife Edith, Beach committed suicide in Florida at the age of 71. In 2005, when the home Beach lived in was remodeled, a bullet was found in the wall, believed to be the bullet that killed him. 
The book which concerns us today is Heart of the Sunset, which first saw the light of day in 1915.  Like many forgotten treasures, Heart is available for free download at to your Kindle, or from the invaluable for the e-reader of your choice.  (A quick word about if you’re a serious book-lover and own an e-reader, this is a gold mine of quite another sort.  Upon receiving my first Kindle, your correspondent was able to download some 300 of his favorite books in minutes, and now carries them with him everyplace.)
Heart of the West is not … good. It is, in fact, terrible in that delicious way that only vintage potboilers can be.  Heart does not take place in Beach’s accustomed Northern setting; indeed, the action surrounds the people of Texas and Mexico during the tensions of the time, and our heroes cross the Rio Grande several times.
Heart tells the story of Dave Law, a square-jawed he-man Texas Ranger with an uncanny gift of talking to horses.  Law is tracking down a group of bad men who are dealing with Mexican revolutionaries, led by the evil Gen. Longorio.  Longorio is a wonderful creation: a vicious and brutal egomaniac who is nearly tamed by love of the beautiful and virtuous Alaire – who also loves (and is loved by) Law.  Unfortunately, Alaire is married, at the moment, to one of the men who Law is currently hunting.
Oh … and there is one additional complication.  Insanity runs through Law’s family, and the quick-tempered lawman is afraid that he too, will one day go mad.  But … was he adopted?
Law may make a credible hero in 1915, but he is perhaps a tad too brutal for modern readers.  Capturing one of Longorio’s henchmen, he tortures him for information.  Here’s a glimpse of Beach’s breathless prose:
Seizing the amazed Mexican, Dave flung him upon Morales’s hard board bed, and in spite of the fellow’s struggles deftly made him fast.  When he had finished –and it was no easy job – Jose lay “spread eagled” upon his back, his wrists and ankles firmly bound to the head and foot posts, his body secured by a tight loop over his waist.  The rope cut painfully and brought a curse from the prisoner when he strained at it.  Law surveyed him with a face of stone.
“I don’t want to do this,” he declared, “but I know your kind.  I give you one more chance.  Will you tell me?”
Jose drew his lips back in a snarl of rage and pain, and Dave realized that further words were useless.  He felt a certain pity for his victim and no little admiration for his courage, but such feelings were of small consequence as against his agonizing fears for Alaire’s safety…
Well … our hero does rather graphically torture his captive.  Take that, James Bond!  But our antagonists fare little better.  Here is Longorio after his plans are thwarted:
His face was like tallow now, his lips were drawn back from his teeth as if in supreme agony.  A moment and the hoof beats had died away.  Then Longorio slipped his leash.
He uttered a cry – a hoarse, half-strangled shriek that tore his throat.  He plucked the collar from his neck as if it choked him; he beat his breast.  Seizing whatever article his eye fell upon, he tore and crushed it; he swept the table clean of its queer Spanish bric-a-brac, and trampled the litter under his heels.  Spying a painting of a saint upon the wall, he ran to it, ripped it from its nail, and, raising it over his head, smashed frame and glass cursing all saints, all priests, and churchly people.  Havoc followed him as he raged about the place wreaking his fury upon inanimate objects.  When he had well-nigh wrecked the contents of the room, and when his first paroxysm had spent its violence, he hurled himself into a chair, writhing in agony.  He bit his writs, he pounded his fists, he kicked; finally, he sprawled full length upon the floor, clawing at he cool, smooth tiles until his nails bled.
“Christ! O Christ!” he screamed.
I know how he feels.
Heart of the Sunset is a heady dish for anyone willing to undertake it today.  And while it is easy (too easy) to poke fun at the cultural detritus of a bygone age, I hasten to remind us all that this week’s lead entertainment story is the release of a trailer for The Avengers.  What will be the reaction to that 96 years hence!

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