Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ernest Haycox, The Adventurers

Introduction

Opening Passage:
An hour after announced sailing time the shore gangs still worked cargo aboard the Jennie North and the little groups of well-wishers on the dock, having exhausted their stock of pleasantries, began to grow restive. Prolonged farewells are unnatural, Mark Sheridan decided; it was best to say good-by and to turn quickly away. A man in an attractive fawn-brown suit sauntered along the deck and stopped beside him at the ship's railing.

Summary: The Adventurers follows the attempt of Mark Sheridan to make his fortune. As the book opens he is leaving San Francisco and heading off to Portland, Oregon, in the hope of doing better there. Sheridan's distinctive characteristic throughout the book is that he is an optimist in a land of pessimists. The man he is talking to in the above passage is George Revelwood; and they will soon meet up with an alluring woman named Clara Dale. The fate of the three is bound together for most of the book, because the Jennie North, overloaded, will founder, and they will be three of the only four survivors. We will shortly afterward meet the Morvains, of whom Katherine Morvain, a stubborn young woman in a family of layabouts, will be the most important. The book has a sort of string-of-pearls structure; it really is a bunch of episodes, but each episode moves forward to the next, and it does do it in a reasonably seamless fashion. All of them are struggling not to fall down into nothing, each in their own ways, and the book is the story of their success -- or failure.

A Western fiction writer needs to have a good sense of both scene and action, and Haycox is extraordinarily good at both. There are several scenes -- the most notable are the sinking of the Jennie North and an extended few chapters on a forest fire, which are rousingly written. But the scenes and action are done well throughout.

Although optimism does win out in the end, barely, it is something of a nihilistic book in flavor, since nothing goes well for anyone, and, as I said, pretty much everyone except Mark is a pessimist. So parts can be a bit depressing; it has a happy ending, in some sense, but it's not a cheerful story, although it helps that Mark Sheridan bounces back easily, so we aren't dragging in despair for the whole twenty-eight chapters. Then, too, like life so much happens in the book and everyone is constantly doing things, so it's never mopey. Perhaps a better way to describe it is that it presents a very sober, sometimes somber, view of life.

One thing I personally liked quite a bit about it was its setting. It occurs almost entirely in what would today be the Portland Metropolitan Area, from Forest Grove in the west to The Dalles in the east, although it gets as far down as Salem in the south. In those days, of course, those were big distances to travel; but, at the same time, traveling them was essential for anyone who wanted to get things done.

Favorite Passage: (Mrs. Colson is an elderly widow.)

"Deputy?" asked Mrs. Colson, and blew the notion out of the room with her tart observation. "We don't need a deputy any more than we need a cat with two tails."

"Well," said Morvain, "things happen--"

"Nothing happens," said Mrs. Colson decisively. "And it don't take a man with a star to fix it, if it does. I can shoot, and so can everybody else. Such a silly notion. We never had a deputy." Then she corrected herself and added thoughtfully, "Oh, yes we did, once, Conover."

"Poor soul," said the minister.

"Well," said Mrs. Colson, "I don't know. He was fool enough to interfere with somebody else's business--instead of minding his own." It was sharply intended, but she cut the edge of it by seeming to be preoccupied with the things on the table. "Have some more meat, Reverend. Conover didn't have sense enough to run his own life, so he naturally wanted to run others'. Katherine, there's more cream in the pantry."

Recommendation: I'm surprised nobody ever made a movie out of the book; it would have made a pretty good one. Recommended for light reading, although, as I said, this is not a comedy, but a sturdy story about the hardships of life and the need for both a strong will and the help of others to handle them.

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