Book Review: Charles Leerhsen’s Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw

2020
Nonfiction
$28; 320
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781501117480

 

 

 

 

Charles Leerhsen’s Butch Cassidy: The True Story of an American Outlaw
by Scott Bradfield

This charming, unpretentious biography of Butch Cassidy’s life shows that at least several events in the charming, unpretentious 1969 film (scripted by the great William Goldman) were fairly accurate. For example, Butch was reportedly charismatic, blue-eyed and handsome, if not exactly in a Paul Newman-ish sort of way; the Sundance Kid (alias of Harry Longabaugh, who committed some early crimes in Sundance, Wyoming) was blond and surly—much like a typical sixties Robert Redford performance; and the third wheel on the relationship, Ethel Place (often mis-referred to as Etta, and played by Samantha Ross) was both beautiful and glamorous. Born and raised in Ireland, Ethel originally came to America searching for her errant aristocratic father [1365], and one typical contemporary described her as “good-looking, a good rider, and an expert with a rifle” [3129].

Even the movie’s second-most memorable scene—depicting the robbery of the No. 1 Overland Limited near Wilcox Station, Wyoming on 2 June 1899 [2647]—resounds with verisimilitude, right down to the stroppy clerk (memorably played by the great character actor, George Furth) refusing to open his car door to the “Hole-in-the-wall gang.” And so they blow open the car with him in it. (“I work for Mr E.H. Harriman and he entrusted me to—” Boom.) The Union Pacific’s owner, E. H. Harriman, even organized a “mobile posse” to ride along in a separate train—but they were far from the “super posse” devised by Goldman. Rather it was the Pinkerton Detective Agency who vigorously pursued Butch and his gang—so much so that many years later they were still attributing crimes to Butch that he never committed.

But unlike a good script, Bitch’s life lacked compression. Born Robert Leroy Parker to a Mormon family in Beaver, Utah (his parents didn’t practice polygamy, but still managed to produce thirteen children), he spent his youth performing conventional jobs around ranches, horse-stables, and cow-herds; and as he grew older, his spontaneous desire for wild travel and even wilder friends led him to occasional bursts of cattle-rustling, horse-stealing, and the robbing of banks and trains. For while Butch was a dependable worker during the periods when he was dependable, there was something about dissolute living that always called him back again—especially when it came to boozing, faro-playing, girls, partying, and stealing. Then, of course, there was just the plain dumb ease of outlawry during the cattle-boom years when Wyoming and Colorado were filled with gun-and-booze-crazed cowboys. In one of Butch’s first big jobs—the payroll wagon for the Pleasant Valley Coal Company in Castle Gate, Utah—his randomly assembled “gang” could depend on the bi-weekly delivery of $8000 by two men whose pistol-hands were occupied with moneybags. And if the delivery didn’t arrive as scheduled, the company blew a loud steam whistle to let their employees (and any robbers who might be lying around) know exactly when it did [2535]. Piece of cake.

As wild west historian Dan Buck noted, “those boys may have been wild, but they surely weren’t much of a bunch” [2542.] Butch attracted lots of loose men and women who regularly entered and departed his orbit, and those who lived to recall Butch for the public record (they tell us he was fond of Tiffany watches, dandy-ish duds, bowler hats and clean shaves) usually recalled him fondly. One former gang member called him “the wisest of all the outlaws I knew,” and even a Wyoming judge who convicted him (and later wrote a letter to the governor seeking his pardon), described him as “a brave, daring fellow well calculated to be a leader” [227]. And while it’s not entirely certain how many banks and trains Butch robbed, his haulings were often munificent—when he and Sundance opened their first bank account in Bolivia in 1900, their savings amounted to a quarter million dollars in today’s currency. Yet he was never known to take another life. As one of his partners noted: “Our greatest defense was our reputation as bad men” [189.] When Butch and his men told bank tellers and train guards to “throw ‘em up,” they got throwed.

As Leerhsen argues, Butch’s popularity may have been even more effective with men than with ladies; and there exist reports that he and many of his fellow male riders—such as long-time friend and partner, Elzy Lay—may have shared a good deal of “mutual solace” [741]. In other words, if Butch’s story was dramatically filmed today it might involve a lot less Jules et Jim and a bit more Brokeback Mountain.

Nevertheless, Butch never stayed in the same place for very long; and each brief flurry of robberies was followed by longer periods of hard, relatively humble work. Butch helped out (Shane-like) on ranches; acted as a foreman on cattle-drives; and for several years before his death, established a large horse-breeding ranch in Chubut, Bolivia with Sundance and Ethel Place, where he was remembered as a clean and prosperous community-member. (“They had a washstand with a fine pitcher and basin,” one neighbor recalled, “and she put drops of perfume in the water. They set the table with a certain etiquette—napkins, china plates.”) But even after years of clean living, Butch couldn’t leave the wild life behind. “There’s no use trying to hide out and go straight,” he once said. “There’s always an informer around to bring the law on you. After you’ve started, you have to keep moving all the time and spring a holdup in some new place. That way you keep the fellows guessing.”

Eventually, Butch and Sundance relapsed into their old ways; they were spotted with a stolen mule, and surrounded by a small town mayor and his townspeople. But that’s where the similarity ends. Instead of a glamorous freeze-frame shootout, Butch privately shot his old friend in a motel room and then himself. Death didn’t scare Butch so much as being locked up.

Leerhsen’s fun, amiable new book does a concise job of sorting what little is known about Butch from all the balderdash generated over the century by dime-novels and weird-historians. (One “buff” went so far as to speculate that Butch was a “clone” who did everything from ride with Pancho Villa to teach Lawrence of Arabia “how to derail trains” [670]). But then, who needs hyper-imaginative Butch-buffs? As Leerhsen makes clear—Butch Cassidy’s real life was filled with a lot of better, wilder stories than a bunch of silly clones.

*

Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer and critic, and former Professor of American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut. Works include The History of Luminous MotionDazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog, and The People Who Watched Her Pass By.  Stories and reviews have appeared in TriquarterlyThe Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionThe New York Times Book ReviewThe Los Angeles Times Book ReviewThe Baffler, and numerous “best of” anthologies. He lives in California and London.

He has stories and essays forthcoming in The Weird Fiction ReviewThe New StatesmanThe Best From Potato Soup JournalDelmarva ReviewThe BafflerThe MothAlbedo OneThe New RepublicThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and Flash Fiction Magazine.

He has written several screenplaysfor Universal, Sony Pictures, Roger Corman’s ConcordeNew Horizons, and several independent film companies, including filmed adaptations of his short story, “The Secret Life of Houses” (for PBS) and his novel, “The History of Luminous Motion.” The short film adaptation of his story, “Greetings From Earth,” was featured at the 2007 Tribeca film festival.

In addition, he presents a weekly YouTube podcast on books entitled “Reading Great Books in the Bathtub.”

Book Review: Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God

 

2017
Fiction
$16; 368
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-310943-3

 

 

 

Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God
by: Rebecca Evans

The Girl Who Slept with God, by Val Brelinski, is both a tragic and coming of age memoir infused with elegant writing of religion, hardship, and courage. Grace Quanbeck, at seventeen, has just returned from a mission trip in Mexico and is pregnant. Her father, Dr. Quanbeck, a Havard-educated astronomer, reacts and moves Grace and her younger sister, Jory, just shy of fourteen, to a home away from their religious community and private Christian school set in rural Arco, Idaho in the 1970’s. Their new house, next door to Hilda Kleinfelter, who later becomes a strong support role as a surrogate parental figure.

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Book Review: Sheila Hamilton’s All the Things We Never Knew

 

2015
Memoir
$13.99; 312 pages
Seal Press
ISBN: 978-58005-584-0

 

 

 

Weaving a Narrative Case for Early Detection: Sheila Hamilton’s All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness 
by Lisa Peterson

“It is my hope that my experience might serve as a cautionary tale for other people who are concerned about a loved one’s mental health.” – Sheila Hamilton

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Book Review: Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t

 

2015
Nonfiction
$15.95; 304 pages
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 978-1593766153

 

 

 

Competing Histories of Shame: Jill Talbot on Family and Loss in The Way We Weren’t
by Michael Fischer

The mother stands at a window, staring out at the rehab center parking lot like a lonely, cooped up pet, waiting for her daughter. The daughter thinks she’s visiting her mother at “special school,” one where even the teachers don’t get to go home at night. She’s too young to know the truth. Besides, it’s Christmas.

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Book Review: Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers

 

2016
Non-Fiction
$16; 261 pages
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1-5011-1086-3

 

 

 

Ten years on an ambulance in Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers
by Clare Frank

The blood-red cartoon ambulance catches my eye. As do the words NAKED and PARAMEDIC. This looks like my kind of book. I was a firefighter for nearly thirty years before I began writing. One of my challenges is finding balance—conveying witnessed trauma with enough grit to honor reality, but not so gratuitously that readers put the book down. Stateside, no one sees more trauma than ambulance paramedics, so I’m curious if this author achieves that balance.

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Book Review: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century

2013
Poetry
$12; 128 pages
SplitLevel Texts
ISBN:  978-0985811136

 

 

 

The Sun Has Gone Out: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century
by Bryce Bullins

There is an infestation of spiders in Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century. No less than a dozen references to spiders or spiderlike qualities exist in Meng’s text and it’s wholly fitting: what better creature best embodies the complexity of time than one who spins webs as intricate and unfathomably raw as the spider? There is great concern for time in Solar Eclipse and Meng’s attentiveness to its passage is humbling while simultaneously sprawling.

Meng asserts that “We could all benefit / from risking temporality / more often” and her verse echoes this sentiment. Solar Eclipse navigates the course and events of a year from the day of the eclipse (22 July, 2009) to the following year but in such a way that it feels as though time is seemingly lost in the process of recollection. Experiments in space, form, and language create a hazy, though still discernible, presence of grounding in some form of the present.

Interspersed within the collection are several diary entries that serve as poetic-prose sections that seek, whether intentionally or otherwise, to stabilize us in the temporality of the year. These diary entries are the most vulnerable pieces in Solar Eclipse because of their earnest honesty. In “M, Tu, W, Th, F” Meng asserts that “learning to want impossible things is a sort of freedom worms & crocodiles don’t know.” In this oddly humorous musing, Meng is subtly pointing out the flaws in our own ability to yearn for impossibility. The virtue of it being impossible makes us want it that much more and makes the lack of it that much stronger. In so many words, it is the drive that keeps us pressing onward.

The most striking aspect of Solar Eclipse is how it deftly rests on a blade’s edge of the necropastoral[1]. While never overtly approaching the bleakness of ecocatastrophe, Meng’s allusions are grounded heavily in the present moment that creates the conditions possible for ecocatastrophe: her verse occupies a space where blog entries coexist with goat farmers in Uruguay and “whatever nascent understanding we’d had about empathy / had its limbs hacked off / right from the start.” This is to say nothing of the countless other pastoral tropes Meng conjures up, but her verse often subverts them as in “Game Reserve”:

Just because there is no eagle
doesn’t mean the eagle isn’t here.
Or maybe ‘eagle’ is really the name for ‘crow’;
And the group of them
above me is saying so.

If the eagle represents the majesty of the world before ecocatastrophe takes its toll, then the crows are what remains after. There is no more deft an analogy than a murder of crows circling above us, occupying the space of the beautiful world we have destroyed.

It is in this world that Meng seeks to illustrate individual flairs of hopelessness, anxiety, optimism, and banality. By doing so, Meng captures a climatology all her own of a life lived now. Whether we are present for it as well (read: aware) is a separate matter entirely.

[1] See Joyelle McSweeny’s essay on the necropastoral, in which she probes the political-aesthetic paradigm and its inability to be separated from nature

Book Review: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know

2014
Poetry
$18; 144 pages
Subito Press
ISBN: 978-0990661214

 

 

Something Like That: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know
by Bryce Bullins

Erasures, when done exceptionally, can create a landscape wholly unique. Paradoxically, the willful redaction of text can enhance, if not make better, a narrative. For example, Yedda Morrison’s Darkness erases, or more accurately whites-out, large portions of the first chapter of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In doing so, Morrison doesn’t so much rewrite Conrad’s narrative but rather enhances it by bringing the natural world to the forefront. Similarly, through this same process of careful and willful redaction, Amaranth Borsuk and Andy Fitch have made something quite unique with their work As We Know.

Written in diary entries from April 30th to July 1st, As We Know seeks to abolish identity and embrace banality. Days pass with vignettes of stoops and flowers in the park, internalization of anxieties and ponderousness, and musings on the nature of umbrellas. Most striking is the lack of gender identifiers of the writer and no hints to let us peel away whatever may be there. It’s a brilliant and bold move. By removing gender identifiers, arguably the identity of a narrator is dismantled, at which point we are able to become more invested in the language on the page as we now have a blank space with which to connect with work in myriad ways. In essence, our own biases, whatever they may be, are dismantled via the absence of identity, leaving us with an unfiltered dialogue with the text itself.

As We Know has a meta-sensibility to its willful destruction of identity. Within the first four pages a quote from Georges Bataille appears in which we are given firm notice that As We Know is taking on the job of the formless and is attempting to “(1) [debase] objects by stripping them of pretensions—in the case of words, pretensions to meaning—and (2) [attack] the very condition on which meaning depends, the structural opposition between definite terms.” We are immediately told what’s at stake by taking away all that is usually at stake. This is to say nothing of the underlying conceptual aspects of As We Know. To quote from the artist’s statement, “As We Know attempts to intervene into the gendered history of editorial intervention as it has played out in the famous cases of figures such as Dorothy Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson.” By not concerning itself with identity from the outset, the tension that generally exists between ownership and authorship dissipates. Though it is clear that there is still some consternation in the text as at times: entries often flow together seamlessly, almost as if one day bleeds into the next with little to separate the preceding day(s), and yet there are times when there are clearly conflicted voices, one of which is giving what is tantamount to stage directions: “(figure out how to organize those better)” and “(figure out where to make these past or present tense)”. This struggle never quite manifests into open aggression but instead subtly stews beneath the work, begging questions as we move forward in time. There is no resolution by the end, only hints at a partial and tenuous closure when we reach the acknowledgements and are given a simple dedication: “this book is for Emily and Dorothy.”

As We Know deftly uses the art of strike-through to cultivate its attentiveness to banality and temporality. The grounding for this banality comes from a quote from Roland Barthes, which serves as an epigraph (as presented in the format of As We Know):

; whatever he writes
, it will always be a vested discourse, in which the body
will make its appearance (banality is discourse without body).
In other words, what he writes proceeds from a corrected banality.

As We Know isn’t merely “corrected banality” but perfected banality: each entry is clearly marked with a day, sections marked with timestamps, and the erased structure of the work makes it feel as though these were a series of never-ending connections due in large part to the repetitious banality that makes up our own days. As mentioned, days bleed together as simply as turning the page, so much so to that when we were cognizant of being on May 5th it is suddenly May 20th.  Strikingly, this preponderance of time dilation is one of As We Know‘s greatest strengths.

When taken out of the context of the work at large, the entries still work exceedingly well as standalone pieces. Take for example the excerpt the Sierra Nevada Review published in volume 25 from May 22:

As We Know 1

No knowledge of the preceding days is necessary to feel the weight of this entry, allowing it to work and flex its integrity entirely on its own as a self-contained micro narrative. Placed into the context of the full body of work, its weight is certainly enhanced, but because of the way in which As We Know is constructed, it lends itself naturally to vignettes rather than predicating itself on needing the entire body to function. Apropos, considering the dynamics of authorship and voice within.

When not tarrying with bringing the past to the present and grounding the timeline of As We Know somewhere within the confines of an abstract present, the struck-through text, by and large, tends to remove what would otherwise be superfluous details and descriptions. It is ironic then, that these superfluous details and descriptions are what enhance the banality of our lives. More correctly, these superfluous things merely give us the illusion of enhancement. What is banal is always banal, no matter how one dresses it.

As We Know is an experiment in language and presentation devoid of all frivolity and pretension as established by Bataille. It is direct, bare, and nearly holistic in its austerity. Its complexities are vast and often times lend to the meta-narrative of our own lives in that As We Know, intentionally or otherwise, winds up confronting us with our own subjectivity to both content and form.