**spoiler alert** Newsweek called Doctorow’s first novel, a western, “Terse and powerful,” and indeed it is. Doctorow’s vision of the West is pretty m...more**spoiler alert** Newsweek called Doctorow’s first novel, a western, “Terse and powerful,” and indeed it is. Doctorow’s vision of the West is pretty much what you would expect a late twentieth century Jew from New York to come up with: stereotypical, anachronistic, impossibly hoaky. It’s not difficult to visualize the heavy stream of bad spaghetti westerns informing Doctorow’s imagination in the pages of this novel. You can see the gimmicky celluloid yarns as clearly as Doctorow, in his romantic cloud of childhood nostalgia, must have reconjured them. And if I were a Western genre prude, I would write this off immediately as derivative, thin, unimaginative, and poorly researched, as in parts it surely is. But I’m not. I care about stories and Welcome to Hard Times is a fascinating, if at times unconfident, story.
Doctorow’s outpost of the Dakota Territory is peopled with cowards and prostitutes the sensibilities of which would never have been found west of the Eastern seaboard, and into their midst rides the Bad Man from Bodie, an outlaw who rapes, murders, and plunders without remorse. No one stands up to this bully of the plains and the populace divides into the men who hate themselves for being cowards and the women who hate the men for being cowards. Eventually, the whores have all been ruined, the buildings have all been burned, the whiskey has all been drank, and half the men have been buried in shallow graves. The Bad Man from Bodie gets bored and leaves, and as the action slows to nearly nothing, the novel takes a turn for the better.
Welcome to Hard Times is only superficially a Western. When it tries to be a Western, it gets pretty silly. Underneath, though, the novel is a stirring meditation on cowardice, gender roles, the psychological importance of safety and justice, revenge, and the destructive power of hatred and chronic self-inflicted victimization.
After the Bad Man departs, the first-person protagonist, Blue, a late middle-aged shopkeeper, attempts to return to some sense of domestic order by taking the ravaged prostitute Molly and the orphaned adolescent Jimmy under his care. Despite being born no later than the mid-1800s, Blue’s character seems startlingly informed by post-Freudian psychology, the holocaust, the feminist revolution, and the civil rights movement. But Molly hates Blue for his Prufrock-derived cowardice. She cannot forgive him, cannot feel safe with him, and she spends the balance of the novel teaching Jimmy to be brave, strong, capable—someone she can trust, someone who can protect her, someone she can respect. But this occurs to Blue too late and there is nothing he can do for Jimmy when, in the final chapter, the Bad Man from Bodie returns and Blue realizes that Molly has been slowly transforming Jimmy into a cold-blooded killer, into a new generation of Bad Man. Doctorow unravels this slowly and deftly so that the reader doesn’t realize what has happened before Blue does. The result is chilling, authoritative, wise, and convincing. My hands shook as I closed the book.
I like this book very much, in spite of its flaws. If ever I lead a first novel workshop, I will make this required reading for two reasons: (1) it is obviously the work of someone who had never written a novel before and who made plenty of mistakes along the way, and (2) it is obviously the work of a gifted storyteller learning the technical devices that would eventually support his enormous talent. (less)
The mixture of politics and art is always a dicey subject for me. I tend to be against it, since nearly all art composed in the name of a political ca...moreThe mixture of politics and art is always a dicey subject for me. I tend to be against it, since nearly all art composed in the name of a political cause is terrible. A recent exception to this is Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer, though I feel it is not nearly as good as it would have been had political voice not been the driving motivation behind it. Indeed, Indian Killer is chilling, and for all of the reasons Alexie does not want it to be. Alexie takes the leitmotif of the murder mystery for his novel, though in truth it is only superficially a murder mystery; at its heart the novel is postmodern political zealoutry. However, in nearly every sense it approximates genius in my mind. Even the title, Indian Killer, is an ellusive play on words, for one wonders the entire length of the novel if it refers to a killer of Indians, or an Indian who is a killer. The plot follows in pseudo-potboiler fashion a chain of Native American murders in Seattle. The victims are scalped, skinned, and mutilated. Xenophobia ensues and our heroes, two Native American's, take up the gauntlet to prove that the murderer is not one of them, but is only creating an MO to lead authorities astray while at the same time creating a racist craze. The true target is mystery novelist Tony Hillerman, whom Alexie goes so far as to parody in his book. Hillerman is known for his Native American mystery's and, implies Alexie's work, actually works against the cause of those he claims to champion by distracting the public's attention from the true cause of the Native American's plight. Hillerman closes our attention in on a single bad guy who is finally caught and punished. Alexie shows us that the true evil is much larger: it is all of society. Alexie indicts not a single psychopath, but all of American society, in the murder of Indians. My biggest complaint is Alexie's prose themselves. They seeth with hatred on every page. His characters are developed and rounded only to the extent that they are abused and angry. Otherwise, they are cardboard cutouts. Likewise his style is easily digested, clipped, engaging, and quickly paced per the potboilers he so obnoxiously imitates. The style approaches passionate use of language only in the most politically rabid passages. Elsewhere, he seems unmoved by the loves and lives of his own characters. Only his hatred and indictment move him to a stirring use of the English language. This, frankly, disgusts me, and the unevenness of style and low regard for literary aesthetics was enough to send this reader into paroxysms of regrettable proportions. Alexie takes a good idea, marries it to a bad one, and hates the hell out of anyone who will read it. (less)