He would say to Tanner, ‘You see how it is? The woman doesn’t have a man, so she needs money. You have money, but you don’t have a woman. All right, you pay for the man and you get your woman.’
It seemed simple because in the beginning it was simple, with the Lipan woman sitting at her husband’s grave. But now there was more to it. The putting him against the wall and tying him to the cross had made it something else.
Elmore Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming is the second Western I’ve read and the first real Western, since I gather True Grit is properly considered more of an anti-Western, a self-conscious (if appreciative) tongue-in-cheek revision of Western tropes rather than a sincere instance of them.
Although I already feel as if these two might be enough Westerns for me, I thoroughly enjoyed Valdez Is Coming, partly because it is so sincere, not to mention suspenseful. It is also stylish: the prose is terse, repetitive, and epigrammatic in ways that reminded me of hard-boiled detective fiction — which makes sense, of course, as the two genres are closely related. When setting up Hammett or Chandler in my Mystery & Detective Fiction class, I always talk about frontier justice and the appeal of the vigilante, and also about the idea of the hard-boiled hero as (quoting Robert B. Parker) “the last gentleman”: he belongs, Parker says,
to the chivalric tradition — a tradition he shares in this country with the Westerner. He is not of the people; he is alone. His adventures are solitary statements. his commitment is to a private moral code without which no other code makes sense to him. He regularly reaffirms the code on behalf of people who don’t have one. He is the last gentleman, and to remain that he must often fight. Sometimes he must kill.
It’s a central paradox of the hard-boiled private eye that his violence elevates rather than condemns him: for us to accept that, we have to be convinced of his “private moral code,” to believe that he kills for the right reasons. This means that though the stories are filled with action, they really turn on principle — and that is exactly true of Valdez Is Coming. By the end of the novel Valdez has killed over a dozen men, but even though by then things are more complicated than they seemed at first, there’s no doubt that he’s in the right, that we are rooting for him as he picks them off one by one in defense of himself but also of the code he can’t quite articulate but follows without equivocation.
What exactly is that code? It begins with an instinct for justice: Valdez kills a man for the wrong reasons, not without meaning to but certainly without wanting to, and figures that he and the others responsible owe the man’s pregnant widow reparations. The dead man is black, however, and his woman is Apache, so nobody else believes they owe her anything. When Valdez confronts Tanner, whose wrong identification led to the shooting, with his proposals, Tanner’s men test his nerve by using the wall around him for target practice:
Valdez felt his hat move and felt powder dust from the adobe brick in his eyes and in his nose and felt chips of adobe sting his face and hands and felt a bullet plow into the wall between his knees and a voice say, “A little higher you get him good.”
He keeps his cool, staring them down and eventually, when Tanner’s “segundo” calls enough, riding away. But when he comes back a second time with the same request, Tanner’s men beat him, tie him to a cross, and send him crawling home — or, more likely, to die in the dust and the sun. Now it’s not just about justice for the woman: it’s also about his own honor and the need to turn this humiliation and defeat into victory. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away any more details. It’s enough to quote the pitch-perfect cover blurb: “They were still laughing when Valdez came back. And then they began to die . . . ”
Valdez himself is an interesting character: though he feels no ambivalence about his specific conflict with Tanner, he is less certain about his own role in life more generally, and the relationship he develops with Tanner’s fiancée Gay (whom he kidnaps as leverage) adds more nuances. It’s to be expected, though, that the protagonist will have some depth, so what I appreciated more is the way key secondary characters also have their own motives and their distinct roles to play in the denouement, including Gay herself but also Tanner’s “segundo.” One of the best bits in the novel is wholly inessential to its plot but adds a great deal to the atmosphere and to our sense of the kind of world its characters live in. Valdez shoots one of Tanner’s men and sends him back with a message. He delivers it and then lies dying, and we spend nearly two pages with him as he reflects on Valdez, and on his own life and immanent death:
He should have thought more about the way the man stood at the wall and watched them shoot at him. He should have remembered the way the man got up with the cross on his back and was kicked down and got up again and walked away. Look — someone should have said to him, or he should have told himself — the man wears three guns and hangs a Remington from his saddle. What kind of man is that? And then he thought, You should know when you’re going to die. It should be something in your life you plan. It shouldn’t happen but it’s happening. He tried to raise his left arm but could not. He had no feeling in his left side, from his chest into his legs. His side was hanging open and draining his life as he looked at the sky. He said to himself, What is the sky to me? He said to himself, What are you doing here alone?
Life may be cheap in this world, death may be fast and sure, but the existential pathos here counteracts the indifference, courage, or grim determination with which the characters otherwise seem to confront their harsh circumstances.
I’m surprised, really, how much fun I found Valdez Is Coming. Still, I can’t imagine reading a lot of books like this — not in a row, certainly. I also have some hesitations about teaching it: it is full of racial slurs, for one thing, and while I think it’s pretty clear not just that they are historically and contextually appropriate but also that the novel as a whole rejects the attitudes they express, that does create some pedagogical challenges. There’s also a lot about its contexts that I don’t know, and of course this is not the kind of novel that’s available in a helpfully annotated edition! That can be rectified with research, though, and for better and for worse it does seem more “pulpy” than True Grit.
Terrific write-up, and I’m happy to see that you enjoyed Valdez as any red-blooded reader properly should. I suspect, though, that you’re just calling your course premises into question with your concern over the novel’s racial (and, it might be added, sexual) language. Any author careful and thoughtful enough to give a damn about just things surely doesn’t deserve the dubious honor of “pulp” — a style defined by its willful indifference to good taste and sensitivity.
But, of course, Leonard isn’t REALLY a pulp author, any more than Portis is. His language goes to a purpose: in this case, the way that everything about Western society — its race relations, its class disparities, its sexual hierarchies — all descend inevitably into the singular outcome of righteous bloodshed. Just look at the very clever way that Leonard has the image and memory of the pregnant widow gradually fade from Valdez’s mind. By the end of the novel, he can barely even recall the ostensible motivation for his actions, let alone care about her welfare. The only thing that matters is revenge.
Finally, it might be (mildly) interesting to compare this novel to its original genesis, the short story “Only Good Ones” (found in the terrific Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, available at a Books-a-Million near you). That story consists of only a shortened version of the novel’s first chapter, ending with the distraught Valdez realizing he’s shot the wrong man. It’s fascinating to see the different implications of ending the story at two different points — and to wonder whether Valdez’s revenge is, in fact, inevitable just from that original act of violence.
It isn’t the language that made me think it could be considered more pulpy than True Grit — more that it seems more unabashedly thrilling, if that makes sense. But the whole definition of “pulp” remains a problem that isn’t going to get solved in the context of my class, that’s for sure, since (as previously noted) the official description simply conflates pulp and genre fiction.
That’s a really good point about the fading of the widow from his mind: by the end she is the occasion of the whole catastrophe but no longer the reason for it. I am not 100% sure “revenge” accurately sums up what he wants, though: that sounds petty, but what he wants seems almost grand. Maybe I underestimate the grandeur of revenge.
We don’t have Books-A-Million up here! I was recently at our local Chapters, which is the largest chain bookstore in these parts, and they didn’t even have a Western section.
No Western section? Appalling! But, then, it’s not as though you should actually have to *buy* a copy of the book, anyway. I mean, isn’t this exactly the sort of situation that Steve Donoghue is *here* for?
“The grandeur of revenge” might as well be the title of a doctoral dissertation on Western fiction, and maybe on the works of Elmore Leonard in particular. It’s most certainly at the center of nearly everything in the genre — whether characters are willingly giving themselves over to the gory release of it (e.g. this book), balancing it and/or disguising it with idealized notions of justice and fair play (e.g. “True Grit”), or working hard to resist its temptations (e.g. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, or “Moment of Vengeance,” another Leonard story from that plump Complete Western collection). But in every case, deep down, the cathartic fantasy of unrestricted payback fuels the fantasy.
It turns out “Only Good Ones” is in the collection of Leonard’s stories I do have (The Tonto Woman and other stories) – thanks for the heads-up about its relationship to Valdez is Coming, as I hadn’t really intended to read the whole volume. (I got it for “Three-Ten to Yuma,” which is as great as people said.)
I haven’t read the Leonard novel, but Zach’s comments reinforce the impression I got from your description that, while an idea of justice may be the initial motivation, the plot eventually turns into a story of revenge. My experience of Westerns is mostly cinematic, but the revenge plot seems pretty common to it, from straightforward versions like 7 Men from Now to more subtle variations like the ending of The Furies.
The theme of personal revenge was certainly strong in Western (in the broader sense of occidental) literature at one time, from medieval tales like The Nibelungenlied and Njal’s Saga to Elizabethan revenge tragedies. Did the theme more or less disappear from literature after that? I can only think of The Count of Monte Cristo as an example of its use in 19th century literature.
Revenge is widely used as a theme in popular culture of the 20th century, well beyond the Western genre, though from my own reading I can’t come up with any examples of it in more serious works of literature.
I haven’t seen a “Western” section in a new-book bookstore for some time, though they do occasionally show up in used book stores and sales.
Frankenstein. Wuthering Heights. No Name. Moby-Dick. Staying in the 19th century, and in English.
This diverse list makes me think that “revenge” is about as helpful for explaining what a novel is about as “marriage”: perhaps the revenge plot, like the marriage plot, is primarily a structuring device that provides a framework in which other issues can be explored and possibly resolved.
I’ve suppressed the plot of Wuthering Heights and haven’t yet read Collins, but I did consider and reject the other two. The “revenge plot” as I conceive it from many Westerns and the examples I mentioned, require that the revenge be taken on the guilty and that the guilty ones recognize that their fate is the result of an act of vengeance.
In Frankenstein, though the monster aims his vengeance at Frankenstein, he does it by the murder of innocents. I think the revenge plot requires a certain level of identity on the part of the reader / viewer with the avenger. While the monster is portrayed sympathetically at times, I think his murders of the innocent put him beyond most readers’ willingness to identify and confirm his status as the “fiend” that Frankenstein terms him.
Ahab’s quest for revenge in Moby Dick is quixotic because it is conducted against a force of nature that is beyond human conceptions of guilt. I think the essential climax of the revenge plot is the moment of recognition of the avenger: the guilty one realizes both that he (all examples that come to mind have guilty males, though the avenger is sometimes a woman) is doomed and at whose hands the doom has come. A succinct summary of this moment occurs in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd when Judge Turpin realizes in whose barber chair he is seated with his throat exposed; both he and Todd have the same line, first the judge in astonished fear, “Benjamin Barker!”, then Sweeney, in triumph, “Benjamin Barker!”
Thinking further in the 19th century, Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and “The Cask of Amontillado“ largely fit my idea of the revenge plot. Poe particularly relishes the cruelty and bitter triumph of the recognition scene in the latter. Though I don’t remember Wuthering Heights in enough detail to comment on the revenge aspects, what I do recollect of its atmosphere makes me think Emily Bronte was one Victorian who could relish the savage attractions of the revenge plot.
Wuthering Heights does not fit your definition. It is Heathcliff who seeks revenge, and his victims are more or less innocent. If Frankenstein’s monster (with whom I strongly sympathize and identify – like me, he loves Goethe!) is not allowed, Heathcliff won’t work.
I pray that very few readers identify at any level with the narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado.”
If I were try to come up with a strict list of requirements, “Cask” would probably fail because the injuries to the narrator are never shown or even specified, and not knowing for what revenge is being taken dulls its edge considerably. In such knowledge also lies one source of possible identification; they should probably be proportional to the revenge being taken.
I think maybe part of the shame of liking Poe (there is some shame, I think) is the possibility that one does perhaps identify, or at least sympathize, with his narrators. Yes, Shelley’s creature is probably more sympathetic; we at least see and feel his wrongs.
I like this idea about the similarity between detective fiction and western fiction. I wonder it the way that Portis is “anti-western” works with certain detective fiction. Are there “anti-detective” novels out there? Probably.
I’ve never been able to read Leonard’s crime fiction, but I’ve not tried his westerns. Since I am a western fan, I should give his westerns a try.
I don’t know if the three short novels that make up Paul Auster’s “New York Trilogy” are considered “anti-detective” novels. They take the form of detective stories, but turn self-referential and obscure, like postmodernist fiction, if I’m using that term correctly. Whatever liberties it takes with the genre, True Grit is a satisfying Western: it was made into a John Wayne movie, after all. It’s been a while since I read Auster, but I don’t think his books constitute satisfying detective stories.
I have actually taught City of Glass in my detective fiction class: it was fun to work through something that is definitely using but then rejecting many of the tropes and certainties of the genre. Unsatisfying, for sure, if what you want or expect is closure. What you say about True Grit seems right to me: it makes the moves but the tone is different.
James, I’ve tried Leonard’s detective fiction but always given up as I just didn’t enjoy the atmosphere or voice of it (and I hated the film version of Pulp Fiction so much I started a whole new academic research project as a result — but that’s another story).
we have lost a hell of a good writer