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.