Friday, June 7, 2013

A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West by Frank Norris

Not his best work
Though Frank Norris is primarily known as a novelist, he did write quite a bit of short fiction during his brief but stellar career. This collection of short stories was published shortly after his death. Compiled by his brother and his widow, the primary purpose of the volume was to generate income to support the author’s family. To that end, the stories included here are mostly inoffensive crowd pleasers intended to sell copies. When viewed against the standard set by his great novels, these stories are tame and predictable by comparison.

The book leads off with its title selection. A Kansas farmer is forced by the low cost of wheat to abandon his land and move to Chicago, where he becomes homeless and unemployed. Meanwhile, the Bull and Bear factions of the grain market make a killing buying and selling wheat, while farmers and laborers everywhere suffer. It’s a rather simplistic look at the economic forces at work in Norris’s day, but it serves as a preliminary sketch for Norris’s novels The Octopus and The Pit, both part of an unfinished trilogy of the “Epic of the Wheat.” Though “A Deal in Wheat“ displays the social consciousness Norris is now known for, it is in no way indicative of the contents of this collection as a whole. In the second story, “Chino’s Wife,” a young mining engineer falls in love with the sexy wife of one of his Mexican laborers. Not only does Norris depict this woman as a stereotypical latina femme fatale, he blatantly states that being Mexican she can’t help but be slutty and “degenerate.” This racist attitude is a far cry from Norris as spokesman for the downtrodden. By this point, the collection is off to an inauspicious start, but thankfully things lighten up from here.

The rest of the stories in the book are simply entertaining adventure stories, similar in style and subject matter to the early short stories of Jack London. Norris utilizes a recurring cast of characters, including Bunt McBride—a miner, cattle driver, and jack of all trades with a talent for spinning yarns—and the “three black crows”—a trio of ne’er-do-wells who will tackle any nautical adventure, legal or illegal, as long as it’s lucrative. For the most part, these are lighthearted stories. The one time Norris tries to go dark and serious, in “A Memorandum of Sudden Death,” a story of three cavalry troopers and a Mexican scout who are stalked by a band of Indians, the result is tedious rather than shocking. The best piece in the book, “The Passing of Cock-Eye Blacklock,” features the exact same plot twist as London’s story “Moon-Face.” It’s possible that in this case, and this case alone, Norris may have told it better. Another favorable entry, “Two Hearts Beat as One,” in which two gun runners fight over the affections of a beautiful Mexican revolutionary, offers a surprise ending so audacious and unbelievable even London wouldn’t have tried it.

Norris’s talent for depicting the sights, sounds, and smells of the “New and Old West” is quite evident in these stories, but beyond that they’re neither innovative nor memorable. Even if you love Norris’s novels, there’s no guarantee you won’t find this book an utter waste of your time. Fans of London will find the book more appealing, though it definitely leaves the reader with the feeling that, in the short story department, Norris isn’t even in the same league with the man who penned “To Build a Fire.” Best remembered as the author of The Octopus and McTeague, Norris has never been renowned for his short stories, and nothing in this collection is going to change that.

Stories in this collection:
A Deal in Wheat
The Wife of Chino
A Bargain with Peg-Leg
The Passing of Cock-Eye Blacklock
A Memorandum of Sudden Death
Two Hearts that Beat as One
The Dual Personality of Slick Dick Nickerson
The Ship that Saw a Ghost
The Ghost in the Crosstrees
The Riding of Felipe

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