Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Untamed by Max Brand

The wild, the innocent, and the damned
I’m a big fan of western movies but have found myself perpetually disappointed by western fiction. Even many of the reputed “classics” and lionized authors of the genre have left me feeling dissatisfied. All is forgotten and forgiven, however, since The Untamed has rekindled my faith in cowboy literature. This novel is a real gem of its genre, and a joy to read for anyone who appreciates a good western.

There’s something odd about Whistlin’ Dan Barry. Even his adopted family notices it. Despite his mild-mannered, almost childlike demeanor, somewhere behind those dark eyes lurks the soul of a wild animal. As a young boy, he was found wandering in the open desert, and he still prefers the big sky to a roof over his head. He moves more like a panther than a man, wild beasts seem to obey his gentle commands, and he wields a six-shooter with preternatural skill. And when he gets angry, watch out. When Dan—while minding his own business, of course—runs afoul of a gang of bandits led by the notorious criminal Jim Silent, he starts down an irreversible trail that leads toward an inevitable kill-or-be-killed showdown.

The Untamed has all the atmosphere, suspense, and heart of a classic western film. This is not, however, one of today’s post-spaghetti westerns where the hero is a total misanthrope and the villains are all sadists. Nor is it a corny, singing cowboy horse opera like the early talkies of its day. It’s more akin to the great westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, with an ensemble cast of characters and a plot that emphasizes emotional tension over violence. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its fair share of shootin’ and brawlin’, but the action is not gratuitous and each character acts like a human being rather than a gunslinging automaton. Typical for its genre, vengeance is the primary motivating factor for much of the action, but there are subtleties and shades of gray that set it above common pulp fiction. The characters aren’t necessarily realistic—Whistlin’ Dan is a bit of a superhero—but their psychology and behavior are believable. The villains are distinctive individuals and not cardboard cutouts with targets painted on them. The prose is expertly crafted throughout. The landscapes are vividly drawn, the action sequences are suspensefully paced, and the dialogue is as rustic and clever as a vintage honky-tonk song. The only thing that really dates the book is its romantic subplot, which doesn’t dominate the story but at times counteracts the dark, gritty ambience with its sentimental innocence.

Max Brand was one of several pseudonyms used by Frederick Schiller Faust, a pulp fiction writer who penned about 500 novels. The Untamed, one of his earliest efforts, was originally serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly from December 1918 to January 1919. Like many magazine serials, which were required to fill a certain quota of words or chapters, it runs long in the middle. The beginning is gripping, the ending is riveting, but in between there’s a cycle of capture and escape that seems like the simple postponement of a foregone conclusion. The face-off between Dan Barry and Jim Silent is worth waiting for, but that doesn’t change the fact that the course taken to get there sometimes feels like beating around the bush. Despite such minor quibbling, The Untamed is a solid piece of pulp adventure well worth reading for fans of the genre. It may be the closest thing that exists to a definitive exemplar of the western pulp novel.

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