Book Review: R.S. Belcher, The Six-Gun Tarot

Now here’s a book way outside my normal range. I picked it up in exceptional circumstances.

 

Our local public library was closed for a long time for major building work and the next nearest is really small with a very limited stock. Moreover, the limited stock was mainly directed at older women who like romantic traditional stories. I don’t mean people took the books and threw them at old ladies. The old ladies are the main readership and of course the stock reflects that. Fair enough, but I was struggling to find something that interested me. Yes, I know about Amazon and also about on-line ordering of library books, but I have limited space, am lazy and in any case was curious about that library.

 

Then I came on a book that seemed totally out of place. From the cover, a skeletal gunslinger stared back at me. I was intrigued. I borrowed the book.

 

Although occult fantasy is not my thing, I fancy I had seen the author’s name and no doubt he’s famous. But for me it was a totally new experience and so I could go in with open mind and fresh eyes (hmm, fresh eyes sounds like something that might happen in this book).

 

The opening was powerful. A lone teenager on horseback, fleeing from something, was lost and probably dying in a desert somewhere in the American South-west. In fact the book is very well written. Especially in that opening scene and in the apocalyptic ending, there are pieces of vivid, ambitious, skilful descriptive writing. Maybe given how impoverished writing is preached as gospel in the States, you need to be writing about something like undead cowboys to get away with vivid and imaginative prose that could almost be poetry.

 

I was also intrigued that what you could call the theological backdrop, working on Judaeo-Christian and pagan myths, was well-thought-out. I was also surprised that the values and attitudes behind the writing seemed pretty liberal: for example, a closet-gay leading Mormon turns into a reluctant but very real hero and there are assertive women who reject male dominance without rejecting men.

 

I felt it had weaknesses, though. The most effective supernatural thrillers, like some very effective SF stories, present us with an apparently perfectly normal, familiar world and then something mysterious and scary is introduced into it, small enough to start with but growing and subverting the normal. Belcher’s small western town of Golgotha was weird from the start. The weirdness was everywhere. The book does provide an explanation for that (a bit like the reason in the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood why aliens kept turning up in Cardiff, and I don’t mean the English or the Japanese), but the all-pervasive weirdness makes the book less compelling for me. It was when the amiable, likeable, distinctly normal storekeeper turned out to be keeping his deceased wife semi-alive in a tank that I pulled back. I kept reading, but with less involvement, less suspension of disbelief.

 

It also seemed to me a weakness that the opening character, that haunted teenager, almost completely dropped out of the story (except for occasional flashbacks) until right at the end when, predictably, he played a key role. He was a convincing and interesting character and I’d like to have seen him kept more involved and to have seen more through his eyes. I do understand that it’s an old and good trick to introduce a place or a community through the eyes of a stranger, but that trick interests me in the stranger.

 

The author seemed to have researched some factual matters pretty well, but I was surprised that his small Western settlement around 1869 had several veterans of the war of 1812. It’s physically possible, but they’d be pretty old in a town you wouldn’t expect to have many old people, and that was was fought by quite small numbers.

 

One problem about any story like this is that if the worst outcome is the end of the universe, you don’t really believe it could happen (that is, you don’t think the author will write the end that way). By contrast, a thriller in which the worst outcome is the death of a decent person or wealth or power falling into evil hands, as in John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener”, you fully believe the author may make it happen.

 

It was a fun read, though. Oh, and given the theological/mythological backdrop, I thought the sheriff’s unusual surname (Highfather) was going to turn out to be highly significant. Maybe Belcher had that idea, but it isn’t spelt out.

 

 

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Life, the Department Store and Everything

I went shopping today in Ipswich. The first priority task was to make a pair of jeans safe.

 

I have a system with jeans. At any one time I have at least  two pairs – an old pair for wearing in the muddy countryside and a new about town pair. When the old pair are too holey to keep, the newer pair is promoted and I christen a brand new pair. As jeans are heavily discounted in periodic sales, I often anticipate, so I have a battered old pair, a decent middle-aged pair and a new unused pair.

 

In the last Christmas sales, at the turn of the year, I bought a new pair in Ipswich. There are two towns with extensive shops within reasonable reach for me, Ipswich and Colchester, both easy enough to reach by a short train journey or by car, but other things take me to Colchester quite often. Ipswich I visit maybe once a year for shopping. I stored the new pair away and as I don’t wear jeans in the summer it was a long time before I needed them, having chucked out an old, ragged pair. I went to put the new pair on. They still had a security device attached. I didn’t realise what it was and spent a while trying to remove it before I noticed small lettering warning that on being forced off it would release a jet of dye. I still had the bag I bought them in but not the receipt.

 

The chain concerned, Blue Inc, have a store in Colchester too. I took my booby-trapped jeans there as I had other business in the town. The staff were sympathetic but said they didn’t use the same security system. I’d have to take them to Ipswich. As I had no other cause to go to Ipswich, likeable town though it is, I waited until there were other things to do there. It took about ten seconds for the Ipswich store to take the device off, apologise and hand me my jeans. Happy, I went on to do my shopping.

 

I was searching for a tea-strainer (hard to get now few people use loose tea) and bathroom scales. In this search I entered a department store (big shop with a wide range of merchandise in sections), Debenham’s. I thought the section “HOME” would be the one. Such stores have signs displayed for classes of items – FOOTWEAR and so on. I saw a sign which said LIVING. Living?? How did that help identify what was there? What might a store sell which could not be put under LIVING? Coffins? I couldn’t see any and there was no corresponding sign BEING DEAD.

 

I remain without functioning bathroom scales, but I found tea-strainers in the pound store described as SMALL SIEVES.

 

Here’s a short poem I wrote about that sign.

 

 

IF A TEA-STRAINER IS A PART OF LIFE

I asked the assistant

For a tea-strainer.

She couldn’t help

And it seemed to pain her.

 

The sign in the store says “LIVING”.

Is that something I can buy?

Is that everything we need

Before we die?

 

What’s not included in that section

That might be in stock?

Coffins? Shrouds?

Asteroid rock?

 

I don’t see any of them

Or a sign that says “DYING”.

Is a tea-strainer part of life,

Death-defying?

 

 

One reason for going to a poetry open mic

Executor

Now here’s untrodden ground. I’ve found Wonderful WordPress’s new way of allowing you to import images, but the only way you can do it is quoting the URL, assuming you have it. So this comes out here as gobbledegook and if it stays as gobbledegook, for which I do not apologise as it may inspire someone.

I went to a local open mic (why not open mike?) in Colchester. I read some of my stuff and listened to some superb poetry, much from people who were not regulars and had one short minute. There was a lead performer, a political poet with a rap style – very talented, but I prefer my politics delievered at a slower pace so I can think about it and even disagree.

At a late stage – or it may have been the interval – my attention wandered enough for me to jot down two very different short poems. Here they are.

I SHALL MEET HIM

This man I should meet, I don’t understand him well
He speaks a different language, almost, to my own
I cannot see his face. I do not know if he still has his hair
Or how he walks at all or if he sees. I do know his name
And (this is boring for a story) what happens to him next.
He dies. He was a human; he loved birds and rivers,
The sea, the stars, even the starless dark.
We are connected, somehow, by the years.

THE EXECUTORS

I was a voracious child for books
I read the preface, notes, index if any and the rest.
The editors thanked Mr J.B. Priestley for permission
And also the executors of Robert Louis Stevenson.
He died quite young. I knew the reason: they cut his head off
These executors. Not being a Catholic I hadn’t come across
People being canonised.

Two William Carlos Williams – or should that be Williamses?

No idea if this is going to work. The WordPress Gnomes have been messing with things so how I could import a picture into text seems to have changed.

I wanted to look at two William Carlos Williams poems to illustrate why I think one is powerful and the other vacuous.

First it’s worth observing that despite The U.K. and the U.S. having almost the same language, the difference in fashions for poets between the two is enormous. For once perhaps the U.K. is more insular, since most Americans seriously into poetry seem to be familiar with a number of U.K.-based poets while there are many excellent American poets virtually unknown in the U.K..

Many Americans speak of William Carlos Williams in awed tones, just as Hemingway seems to be a Godlike figure. Neither have the same status across the Atlantic. Probably this has something to do with diverging literary fashions.

Here are probably WCW’s two most famous poems:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The second first, to be perverse. It’s pretty clear that the aim is to strip away all philosophy, all claims to depth, and to concentrate on vivid description. It works unless you don’t like plums. You can almost taste those plums. It’s done with great economy. Williams does this sort of thing very well and I admire it: my only problem with it is if people asserts this is how poetry should be, so something very different (say Yeats’ “Byzantium”) is a mistake. As my poetry is almost completely different from this kind, I’d object, but I’m delighted the plum poem exists.

Now the first, which is even more famous. There is one image of two things – a wheelbarrow and chicken. To me the description doesn’t seem particularly vivid and whereas plums engage me because I know how they taste, wheelbarrows and chicken engage me no more than any two other random things, say drawing-pins and cabbages. The layout of the poem seems precious, with even “wheelbarrow” split so “barrow” has its own line. I don’t think the word “barrow” can support a line.

The poem had a big impact in America (and a small one in the U.K. and Ireland). Why? People still puzzle over this and I’ve seen a knowledgeable commentator assuming it’s some kind of code. If that were true it would be a case of amazing arrogance, since very few people would work out the code and those who did would either be crossword freak types or utterly convinced the decoded message was worth the effort. But surely it isn’t code. Ordinary things are flatly mentioned except for those key words “so much depends upon”. And this is the trick. Williams TELLS us what he’s going to say is hugely significant and we politely believe him. What precisely depends on this wheelbarrow? Why? Don’t ask. This is like a politician who tells us it’s enormously important to do what he says, but can’t or won’t explain why. We assume that dratted wheelbarrow and chicken must be important. They aren’t.

If the poem just read “A red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens” would it have much impact? I doubt it.

Now let’s try:

So much depends
upon
a brass drawing
pin
touched by house
dust
beside the green
cabbages

Well?