Wednesday, 1 April 2009
Hombre - Elmore Leonard
This review is part of The Book Review Club's April meeting - for info go HERE.
Originally published 1961
Orion Books £6.99
I've long been a fan of Elmore Leonard and have read many of his books but what is strange is that, for a western buff, this is only the second western I've read from the man. I don't know why that is - perhaps because his crime work is more readily available but when, earlier this year, my daughter returned from New York with a paperback of Last Stand at Sabre River I knew I had to read more of the author's early westerns.
I recently read an opinion that stated of Hombre - Elmore Leonard has never written a finer book. Which is a lofty claim indeed but it might not be too far of the mark.
The story is told in the first person by an onlooker to most of the action which works well and helps to present John Russel/Hombre, a part Mex who has been raised by the Apaches, in a true mythical fashion. He always stands there on the sideline, glimpsed rather than seen clearly, and on times seems like a supernatural being.
The book starts off with a disparate group of travellers on a stagecoach and when it is discovered who John Russel is no one wants to ride with him and he is forced to sit up with the driver. However when they are attacked by outlaws they find they have to walk to safety - and walk with John Russel if they have any hope of escaping the outlaws who are on their tail, holding the wife of passenger, Dr. Favor ransom for stolen army money that the doctor is carrying.
Hombre the name means simply, "Man"
"As he sat there that's when I got my first look at John Russel. Picture the belt down across his chest with the sun glinting on the bullets that filled most of the loops. Picture a stained, dirty looking straight brimmed hat worn almost Indian - fashion, that is uncreased and not cocked to either side, except the brim was curled some and there was a little dent down the crown.
Picture his face half shadowed by the hat. First you just saw how dark it was. Dark as his arms with the sleeves rolled above his elbows. Dark - I swear-as the faces of two White Mountain Boys. Then you saw how long his hair was, almost covering his ears, and how clean shaved looking his face was. Right then you suspected he was more to those Apaches than a friend or boss. I mean he could be a blood relation, no matter what his name was, and nobody in the world would bet he wasn't."
Leonard is famed for his sparse, tightly wound prose and it carries over here. His style seems deceptively simply and yet the trained eye will notice the virtuoso performance of his narrative in building a story and fleshing out the characters with not a single ounce of fat. It's not an easy trick to pull off but then the style has always been intrinsic to all of the author's work.
The Western Writers of America listed this book in the top 25 westerns of all time and I wouldn't argue with that. I've read scores of westerns in my time and this moody tome is a thrill ride from page one to last. And there is a punch at the end that comes so unexpectedly that it leaves the reader breathless - in the final analysis it seems Russel is more true hero than anti-hero.