Print Editions: Used copies are available, but with ebooks so cheap, why bother?
Summary: A Western tale about a 19th century Texas town that is harsh, spiritual and profound.
Recommended if you like: Cormac McCarthy (but with more plain-spoken language), Faulkner, Euripides, Graham Greene
I don’t normally read Westerns, but I’m a fan of this dark and brooding novel. It takes place in a Texas town beset by all kinds of disruptive forces. Civilized living in this late 19th century Texas town is still tenuous. Towns are small, individuals are vulnerable to attack and robbery and there’s a lot friction between ethnic groups. The white man is outraged at how Indians attack settlers and steal their belongings. Indians are outraged by the heavy-handed way that the white man encroaches on their territory and retaliates for crimes committed by Indians from other tribes. Caught in the middle are farming families, Mexicans, merchants, drifters, religious people and people with multiple loyalties.
It’s a rough life that claims many casualties. This novel depicts many of these inhabitants, starting with a tough cowboy haunted by the memory of an Indian raid where he shoots his wife to prevent the Indians from getting to her first. He consoles himself that it had to be done — and other white woman agree –but after talking to Crow Poison, a white woman who used to be married to an Indian, he has to face the real possibility that the Indians wouldn’t have killed and molested his wife’s body after all. How would he ever know? Was it possible that his murderous deed — though committed with the purest of motives — was ultimately a senseless act of destruction?
Jade finds steady work as an escort for cattle, guarding property and chasing after rustlers. He does it exceedingly well (and the author does a great job of capturing the mundane details of being a cowboy: the food, the daily aggravations, the techniques for defending oneself). Jade has already killed several Indians who have committed crimes. He rationalizes his behavior by saying he’s pursuing justice; in a way, he’s avenging the violence which the Indians forced him to do against the woman he loved. At the same time, Jade feels queasy about having so much violence in his life. What he feels is not so much guilt as regret that these violent deeds have become for him a necessity of living in Texas.
His foil is a white woman named Crow Poison who used to be married to an Indian; tragically, her son and husband were killed during an Indian raid. Jade and Crow Poison are two people with anger in their hearts; they are immediately attracted to one another, and yet they also condemn one another’s values. Jade finds appalling that Crow Poison might have had normal relations with a man whose laws and moral code was so primitive. Crow Poison finds appalling that Jade could dispense with human life so nonchalantly just to make a living. With horror she realizes that a man like Jade — and maybe even Jade himself — could have been the one who killed her husband and son.
That is the central action of the book. How do both lovers make their peace with the other’s past? Both are loners and strangers in this small community; in a way these two are meant to be together — both are aggrieved enough to challenge the other’s cynical world view.
I wouldn’t call this a religious or even a spiritual novel, but the novel raises questions about what role religion can play (if any) in a society lacking order and a settled structure of governance. A preacher and his family live among the people to offer guidance and comfort and an upright example. But most of the transients and townspeople scoff at the preacher’s efforts. The preacher has dreams of mending relations between Indians and Americans, but he practically inhabits a war zone. Wouldn’t it be better for the intrepid preacher to wait for peaceful society to develop before trying to spread the Christian word? For someone to intervene (either morally or physically) on behalf of the downtrodden is almost an invitation to self-destruction or martyrdom. The preacher preaches forgiveness and respect and charity, but in the open land, such currencies have no real value.
Weapons have value, and so do whores. So do ethnic kinship and face-to-face meetings and of course money. The general from the ranch house seems to have the most money, but strongmen/teamsters like Jade have the raw power. Still, people like Jade are not happy; they cannot even relax. Even as a cautious strongman, Jade doesn’t really feel safe; he must be suspicious of everybody.
Who is Jade really? And who does he want to become?
This remarkable novel provides a compelling panorama of Texas settlers in the late 19th century. I can’t speak of its historical accuracy, but the book is overflowing with details and slang (the slang is not too intrusive, and there is a helpful glossary at the end). My main complaint is more formal than thematic. The book throws out so many minor characters and backstory that I got lost several times (even when skimming through the novel for a second time to write this review). The reader’s first encounter with a character is through dialogue; gradually it becomes possible to piece together the character’s personality during the novel — but it takes a while. (Flynn did something similar in the somewhat more light-hearted Wanderer Springs).
The advantage of immersing a reader in such a large ensemble is that encounters seem less directed and more random; we are never quite sure which members in this town community are going to play an important role later. The first half of the book is about Jade and Crow Poison’s turbulent love story, but by the book’s end, an improbable and tragic series of events thrusts several incidental characters into the limelight (I’m being purposely vague here). These events are jarring and heart-rending; they bring insight and require major choices. There is a lesson to be learned here: every person is important before the eyes of God and God-loving people, no matter how easy to overlook — whether in the novel or real life.
As I mentioned, my unfamiliarity with characters caused confusion and slowed my reading down (although it was no longer an issue by the last third). The style is sparse, and the language stays simple. But when the narrator is permitted to enter the minds of characters, it reveals complex sentiments and fears. None of the sentences seem remarkable by itself until you stumble upon one which penetrates to the heart of the matter — not in judgment, but understanding. Here’s a scene where Crow Poison compares Jade to her deceased Indian husband Skull Cap:
Why had he /Jade/ come back? Crow Poison pondered. She no longer believed that he had come to the settlement to kill her, but what did he want with her? He had sat easy at her table and he walked like Skull Cap, as though walking was for squaws. Warriors were above all living things on the earth. Even the mighty eagle could be put under their foot with an arrow or a rifle. The horse was their glory, the proof of their manhood, their first and greatest coup. The horse was the weapon that made them deadly and the shield that made them invulnerable to lesser foes.
They seemed much the same, Jade and her husband, but separated by rivers of tears, mountains of dead, cliffs of hatred so sheer and deep no one could have imagined the bottom.
She had clung to Skull Cap knowing that she was not likely to have him for long. Horses, buffalo, braves, soldiers — all were proud, all were vain, all were doomed. The horses would survive the longest, beyond their usefulness because of their beauty, their grace. Because they could make a man bigger than he had ever been. Like the locomotive she had seen once. More powerful than a man, yet controlled by a man.
Crow Poison wondered if white men would someday turn against the machine the way they had the buffalo despite all the gifts the buffalo had given man. The buffalo had made survival possible. Yet white man had killed them as happily, as wantonly as she had killed scorpions, centipedes, the snakes that carried death in their mouths..
This passage captures both the romanticized way that men in 19th century treated women and horses, and Crow Poison’s fatalistic attitude that they never will change. At the same time, Crow Poison does not really resist Jade’s romantic advances… if only because the two of them share a kinship based on tragedy. And the two of them are able to help the other to grow; neither are able to preach forgiveness, but at least each comes to realize that the other person is not the real enemy here.
Why should people be reading this kind of novel today? Surely society today is nowhere as dangerous as Jade’s world. The novel asks important questions. How do you enforce a moral code? How can people learn to suppress the thirst for vengeance when pursuing justice? What kinds of actions can we forgive in a loved one? How do peacemakers bridge the barriers between groups of people who deny the other’s humanity?
The end hints at a sequel, and indeed, Flynn wrote one called Jade: The Law. Although Jade: Outlaw stands well enough on its own, I like knowing that this novel was only the first leg of a longer journey. I’m hoping that the second novel will offer less violence and more time to focus on the ordinary (and less stressful) part of people’s lives. Jade: Outlaw has a few lighter moments, but for the most part it depicts humans in a precarious state who are beset by anxiety and sadness. Great writing, yes, but when (and how) will the inhabitants find peace and contentment?
Or will they?
See Also: My blogpost about Robert Flynn’s web essays (with lots of links).
(View my other book reviews).