I don’t spend a lot of time writing book reviews. Basically, unless I’ve been specifically asked by a friend or a client to do a book review for them, or if I find a book I desperately want to read on Goodreads or on the Online Book Club , you won’t see a lot of my reviews online. Writing book reviews remind me too much of having to write book reports in school. In other words, it’s drudgework to me. I’d much rather be writing fiction of my own or reading.
I have a horrifically long list of books I want to read. (No, I don’t keep the list on Goodreads because that is also too time consuming. Do you sense a pattern here?) I generally average between 15 to 20 books a month, and to be honest, not all of the books I read are significant enough in my mind to spend time writing about them. In fact I start and quit reading perhaps twice that amount because the writing or the story is a disappointment to me. For me to voluntarily write a review on a book means the book seriously affected me and I really want to share a true jewel of literature.
Well, I just finished reading one of the saddest, yet fascinating novels I have ever read. I was totally unprepared for how this book made me feel and that alone is why I am writing about it here.
I’ve always been a fan of Western movies and have enjoyed reading western history books and journals simply because I am interested in the history. My favorite TV channels are channels that play western movies or classic films. I grew up watching these things on TV in Southern California and never really outgrew them. Currently, I am not watching a lot of TV, despite the fact that I do have cable. I simply have too many other things to do and I enjoy reading books far more than I enjoy TV or movies.
Periodically I get a hankering to watch a western movie, so, rather than turn on the TV and watch a movie I’ve probably seen a hundred times over the course of my 60-odd years of life, I decided to do something I haven’t done in a long time: Actually read a western.
So I recently checked out a series of western novels from the library and picked this one out as well. I recognized the author’s name from his TV and movie credits, but I had never read one of his novels before. I decided to check it out, and boy was I blown away by it!
Let me say first off that it is indeed a novel. It is not a real journal, though you may be hard pressed to remember that as you read it. It was written by Richard Matheson, who wrote a lot of science fiction (often referred to by many critics as “space westerns”) and horror, both in written form (sci-fi/horror novels and short stories) and scripts for TV and movies.
Also being a big fan of sci-fi, and having enjoyed a lot of the movies (Somewhere in Time, Hell House, What Dreams May Come, and I am Legend) and TV shows (Twilight Zone) Matheson wrote, I thought reading Journal of the Gun Years might actually be worth my time. I have long been a fan of this man’s unique twists on the world in TV and movies, though I had never actually read any of his written works. I daresay that may be the case for most of us.
All I can say is, I was not prepared for the brilliance of this work.
The story is presented in the form of journal entries written by the fictional Clay Halser, a Civil War Veteran who goes west after the war to find “excitement” and ends up becoming a gunfighter and marshal in the Wild West. Through the course of the book, the character grows from a teenager into a man in his 30s, from a boy fighting an insane war, to a young man trapped in the western range wars, to a mature man trying to put his talent with a gun to some good use, and finally a man trying to come to terms with the deaths he has caused and trying to live down his legend, which takes on a totally out-of-control life of its own.
The changes in the daily entries this character writes as he grows older, wiser and sadder are so well written I had a hard time believing it was a novel. The early entries show a callow young lad with all the innocence of youth, with one glaring exception: He’d spent his formative teen years killing other men in the “War between the States.” Despite this, at the end of the war he does not present as a young man who has been broken by the horrific events he’d lived through. Instead, you see the kid in him shining through, wanting to kick up his heels and find fun and excitement in life again. But being at home again among his family and old friends, Clay finds that everyone else’s plans for him sound boring. In fact, he’s genuinely frightened if he goes along with what is expected of him, he will be trapped and never see anything interesting of the world.
Now I have read a lot of history about this era, and because I have read many journals written about the West by the people who actually traveled across the plains before and after the Civil War, I found this tale full of the truth and sadness of real life. Many of the stories Clay tells in his “journal” actually did happen to many people who lived through that period in our history.
Throughout the novel real people who lived and were legends in the West stumble in and out of Clay’s life, such as when he meets Wild Bill Hickok as a young man and later as the two legends sit down to have a drink and talk about life as legendary gunfighters. Or quickly meeting and losing a young friend to the violence of the range wars who just happens to be the younger brother of Billy the Kid and who wants be just like his big brother.
An interesting theme seems to run throughout the novel. As events unfold in his life, Clay begins to question who or what really is in charge of his life. At first, Clay believed himself to be the master of his fate, but after years of surviving gun battles where everyone else dies or is wounded while he is barely scratched, where it seems like just dumb luck that he manages to survive everything. It seems to him that its a series of strange circumstances trap him in dangerous situations where his only choice is to fight or die. Clay begins to wonder if someone or something else has designed his life to come out that way it has.
In addition to the vividness of the gunfights he’s involved in, the psychological damage that results from the life he’s lived is also strikingly real. Anyone in the present day, especially our returned soldiers, will recognize the symptoms of PTSD caused by a life spent shooting a weapon at other men. In fact, I believe it is Clay’s internal struggle with the guilt he bears for the killings he’s forced to do and his feelings of failure in trying to accomplish something good with the only real skills he seems to have that is the true tale here. His perceptions about how his life turned out are familiar ones to many people today, I think. Much of what Clay describes about his feelings in his journal are very common thoughts in older Americans who look back over the course of their life and are saddened that it didn’t follow the path they intended. What is disturbing about them is how young he still is at the time he ponders these questions.
To anyone who is interested in the West, this novel is a testament to the realities of that overly romanticized period in history. It’s also a thumbed nose to the press and those who would rather believe magazine-manufactured stories about the real human beings than the truth. The press of that period in history wrote total fabrications about the gunfighters of the West and turned them into the superstars of their day.
If you decide to read Journal of the Gun Years, be advised, the tale gets very dark and bloody. But it’s one of the realest Wild West tales I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.
Oh, and if you have an app for audiobooks, I really would advise you to listen to the audiobook. Stefan Rudnicki does a stellar job of narration. I can imagine the emotional wreck he must’ve been after getting into the character of this young man.
You can check out the particulars of the book here: