Friday, October 24, 2014

The Homesman, By Glendon Swarthout

One of the most successful western novels of the latter part of the last century was The Shootist (1975), by Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992).  This fine novel was later made into an even better John Wayne film of the same name in 1976, which would prove to be not only Wayne’s last western, but his last film, as well.  It was a fitting coda to a career in the saddle.

Needless to say, it was with some excitement that I found his book The Homesman (1988) at my local bookshop.  It was, however, a significant disappointment.

The setup is wonderful:  during a crippling winter, three women living hardscrabble pioneer lives go insane.  The opening chapter includes a graphic moment when one of these unfortunates murders her new-born baby by dropping it into the outhouse pit.  The book struggles to recover its grounding after this brutal opening.

It is decided that the three women need to be taken back east to a religious institution that deals with unbalanced women.  Their husbands – a fairly brutish lot – abrogate their responsibilities, so someone else must escort these women through dangerous Indian country.  But who?

Enter Mary Bee Cuddy, an ex-teacher, spinster and independent woman.  She volunteers for this perilous mission, but realizes that she cannot do it alone.  Fortunately, she saves from lynching George Briggs, a sidewinder and general hard-case who is getting his neck stretched for claim jumping.  Saving his life, she makes a bargain with him to take the deranged women back east.

Of course, they meet every expected plot complication: storms, Indians, rampaging cattlemen and dwindling supplies.

The Homesman won both the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award and the Western Heritage Wrangler Award, and I sure had high hopes.  However, The Homesman is a failure in almost every regard.  Though it may sound as high-concept as Little House on the Prairie Goes to Hell, it’s never quite that good.

First, Mary Bee Cuddy never really comes alive – she is simply a walking cliché.  Imagine the wonderful Marjorie Main (1890-1975) in buckskin, and all the character development you need is already in your head.  It is almost as if Swarthout was merely notching things on the standard checklist for salty western women: homely?  Check.  Brassy and tough?  Check.  Spinster and ex-teacher?  Check and check.  Worse yet, and I will spoil this for you to save reading the book, Cuddy hangs herself midway through the novel after Briggs rejects her attempts to seduce him.  This is a plot point that comes completely from left field, and once Swarthout kills his point-of-view character, what little there was to savor is gone. 

Briggs, of course, is a western lowlife according to the standard template: bad man with inherent decency.  He is never believable for an instant. 

Swarthout commits his greatest sin by leaving the three, poor madwomen nothing more than ciphers.  Here is an opportunity for any novelist to really shine … but aside from glazed stares and greatly internalized suffering, there is nothing there.  
Perhaps your correspondent is sadly warped, but slogging through this turgid potboiler, I could not help but wait for the funny part.  It never came.

And then – it dawned on me.  In other hands, what a delicious comedy this would be!  Keep almost the same set up, but think Bob Hope as Briggs, and someone like Ethel Merman as Mary Bee Cuddy.  Throw in Phyllis Diller, Martha Raye and Zasu Pitts as the madwomen, and you have something.  At least it would be more interesting (if certainly not more enjoyable) than The Homesman.

My paperback copy says that this is Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture With Tommy Lee Jones.  It would seem that the story of my life is that I’m waiting for Bob Hope and instead I get Tommy Lee Jones.  I hope that he may be able to raise a few laughs, but we are not optimistic….

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