Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

by  Ron Hansen

9/10 (Disjointed, lack of development in Bob Ford)

This is a riveting story that reads quickly relative to its dense 400 pages of length.  Hansen’s writing is so confident and authentic that you as a reader immediately sense you’re in the hands of a master.  He marries fact and fiction in the most natural way possible; you have to think long and hard to discern where one ends and the other begins.  An example:

But as (Bob Ford) lifted the dipper he viewed himself in the store window and was discouraged by the picture of a scroungy boy in a ridiculous stove-pipe hat that was dented and smudged, in an overlarge black coat that was soiled and stained and plowed with wrinkles and cinched at his waist by a low-slung holster.  He thought he looked goofy and juvenile, so he went inside the store and cruised the aisles. 112

He goes onto describe the outfit that Ford picked out, which I assume is accurate and based on eyewitness accounts or maybe newspaper reports.  But to describe the thought process behind the purchase takes it one step further.  Hansen is actually inhabiting these historical figures, giving them motives and desires and insecurities, and the results are quite convincing.

The matter-of-fact prose — at times electrifying in its succinctness — helps with the characterization.  Hansen also utilizes a wide variety of colorful imagery and metaphor to describe scenes in altogether unique ways.  In the first pages of his description of Jesse James he magically brings him to life with such passages:

He could intimidate like Henry the Eighth; he could be reckless or serene, rational or lunatic, from one minute to the next.  If he made an entrance, heads turned in his direction; if he strode down an aisle store clerks backed away; if he neared animals they retreated.  Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rains fell straighter, clocks slowed, sounds were amplified: his enemies would not have been much surprised if he produced horned owls from beer bottles or made candles out of his fingers. 6

On the next page there’s this simple yet utterly effective description of a coat:

. . . climbed into a Confederate officer’s coat that was rich with the odors of manual labor and was heavy enough to snap the pegs off a closet rack. 7

And how about this for an interesting description of a death during a train robbery:

. . . Frank McMillan was craning to look inside for himself when a lead ball punched into his forehead above his right eye, stopping his life instantly.  His body collapsed just as the air brakes screeched and McMillan too slipped off the slackening train. 92

And check out the level of detail when describing Wood Hite’s death:

Wood said nothing.  His eyes were closed.  A string of saliva hung from his mouth to the floor and it bowed with each cold draft of air.  Martha tugged the blue muffler off and picked the blood-tipped hair from his brow. 151

As a visual reader I love writing like this because I can actually see it happening.  It definitely has a cinematic quality and I can understand how Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik were so excited about filming it.  What’s more, the scenes with Jesse James are menacing and nerve-wracking without fail.  The way he turns every gesture, glance or word from James into a paranoid delusion or veiled threat is masterful.

So those are all the reasons to read it, but it’s not a flawless book.  Because it is essentially a chronicle of the preamble and aftermath to one particular event, and because Hansen apparently takes pride in being thorough, providing a beginning and end for every person involved (no matter how minor), the book has a disjointed feel in places.  This is notable especially after the assassination itself, and at the beginning of Part 2 when there is an extended aside about the feud between Wood Hite and Dick Liddil.

Also, while it becomes apparent fairly early on that Robert Ford is the main character, we are still left with maddeningly little explanation as to why he chose to act the way he did.  Hansen does provide some more insight much later in the novel, when Ford is commiserating with Dorothy Evans a few months before his death, but it’s a case of too-little-and-late for my tastes.

Overall, however, it’s a captivating book about a fascinating time in the country’s history: when it was transitioning from the uncivilized “Wild West” to the more lawful ways of the East.  Bob Ford represents this transition in certain ways and thus serves as a supremely intriguing subject.  Combined with Hansen’s exceptional writing, this is a novel that will please anyone who doesn’t require a traditional narrative.

Original Review

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