Derek's Reviews > The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen
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's review
Sep 07, 12

really liked it
Recommended for: Mark Kemp

I'm not particularly fond of the term "a writers' writer"--it seems far too dismissive and a little pretentious--but I'm not sure I can find a more fitting description for Ron Hansen, and for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in particular. I've remarked before that there's no one who manages verbs quite as swiftly and beautifully as Hansen does, a feat he repeats here in Jesse James, but I found myself more smitten with his metaphorical descriptions and always-enviable wealth of period details this time around. I'll limit myself to just one such example, lest I end up quoting the whole damn book: "his eye sockets were as deep and dark as fistholes in the snow."

Which is to say that there's something pleasurable to be found on every page, and nearly every paragraph. Jesse James isn't terribly plot-y, but there's enough going on here to keep any reader interested, unless he or she is particularly impatient. But I think Hansen really wishes for us to luxuriate over the words here: to pick up on and spend time with their poetry, which he supplies in a way that seems effortless. (My heart tells me that hours of effort had to go into these descriptions, however, which is maybe just something I tell myself so that I can sleep at night.) There's precious little to criticize here, though I have to admit that I didn't feel much of an urgency to pick this up once I'd finished a chapter or section. This can almost certainly be attributed to having seen Andrew Dominik's excellent 2007 film, which hews so closely to the novel (including quoting passages of it at length) that there were very few surprises.

Though his descriptions are always what I cite first when I tell people that they have to read Ron Hansen, his characterization is commendable too. Jesse James, a "character" already so thoroughly explored and exploited even when he was alive, is given a depth and a scariness here that I haven't seen in other portrayals. He's unhinged and sick and charming and terrible. But Bob Ford is especially well-conceived, and the complexity of his character (fawning attentiveness and sycophancy, roiling disgust with himself and with Jesse) serves as an excellent model for anyone looking to write literary fiction. Because make no mistake: this might take a topic typically explored in genre fiction, but this is light-years from the cardboard cutout versions of Jesse James supplied in the dime novels that first brought his story to life.
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