High Noon at the Big House By MICHAEL KING MANHUNTERS. By Elmer Kelton. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, THE GAY PLACE. By Billy Lee Brammer. Austin: University of Texas Press, THERE’S A FAMOUS MOMENT in the film Giant, that technicolor cowpoke and oil derrick hallucination of Texas, when an aging Rock Hudson decks a coffee shop proprietor. The arrogant owner, having made a sneering exception for Hudson’s “half-breed” Mex-Tex grandchild, refuses to serve a Mexican family. Big Rock won’t stand for it. It’s an honorable if ambivalent moral victory, clouded by the ingrained confusions of Hollywood liberalism: the Great White Father protecting his dusky descendants. Scattered throughout the films of the time are similar moments, in which the white-pop culture, dimly acknowledging the barbarians at the gates, asked itself to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The table was set, and the doorbell was ringing, but the householders were not quite ready to open the door. As these two re-issues of classic Texas fictions coincidentally document, Texas novelists have shown much the same ambivalence about the prospects of social upheaval. Although separated by more than a decade, and entirely distinct in setting, subject and style, read together these novels reflect with surprising force a particular cultural moment: post-McCarthy and pre-integration, when idealized “liberalism” was still a respectable if much disdained political coloration and the civil rights movement was just hitting its stride. Still vivid and engrossing as tales in their own right, Manhunters and The Gay Place are remarkable as well for what they reveal about the times in which they were written, and about the cool, uncertain trickle of liberating ideas in an otherwise largely dry With this issue, Michael King joins the Observer as associate editor. and hostile Texas environment. ELMER KELTON’S MANHUNTERS is much the less ambitious book, bluntly but accurately described by Bill Crider in his afterword to this TCU edition as “an action western with serious thematic underpinnings.” It was a paperback original in 1974, last in a western series Kelton wrote for Ballantine Books, and its story is told in the straightforward, virtually unadorned narrative of the action genre. The novel is a fictionalized retelling of the story of Gregorio Cortez, a young Karnes County Texas-Mexican ranchhand who, in 1901, killed the county sheriff and became the subject of “the biggest manhunt in Texas history.” Kelton recounts the killing, the flight and the 10day chase throughout south Texas toward the Mexican border. In Kelton’s version, the Cortez figure, called Chacho Fernandez, is cheated out of a horse by an Anglo bossman, and when Chacho takes the horse by force, the Anglo sheriff comes after him for theft. Mutual suspicion compounded by a language barrier results in gunfire and the deaths of Chacho’ s brother as well as the sheriff, while the bumbling deputy/translator drives off unharmed. Fernandez is pursued by a Texas Ranger, Kelly Sadler, at the head of one of many posses, and in alternating chapters, with much heroic detail about tracking, shootouts, and manly stoicism, Kelton recounts the manhunt from the point of view of the hunter and the hunted. The Cortez story has an unusual history, in that contemporary readers may now be more familiar with Kelton’s source material than his novel. In his 1994 author’s note, Kelton cites the historical study of Cortez by Americo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand as the 1983 narrative film based on Paredes book, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. Kelton calls Paredes’ book “remarkable though one-sided”; he might also have acknowledged that, for historical detail about the manhunt, his novel relies virtually pointfor-point on Paredes. From Kelton’s point of view, Paredes was “one-sided” because he was entirely sympathetic with Cortez and the heroic corrido legend which grew up around him. In a sentiment echoed by Crider, Kelton argues for balance: “In real life, all the fault, all the bigotry, were not on one side. In a time of unrea soning racial antipathies, there was blame enough to go around.” The character of Kelly Sadler, the Texas Ranger who learns grudging respect for Chacho Fernandez in the course of hunting him down, is Kelton’s attempt to redeem the Anglos in the eyes of his traditional western readers. The mostly racist posse around Sadler has its reflection in Kelton’s Texas Mexicans, who are suspicious of all Anglos and who hide Cortez and make him an unlikely hero; one, out of misplaced revolutionary zeal, even betrays him. Although it makes for a more arithmetically balanced novel, Kelton’s moral equivalence rings hollow for anyone who has read Paredes carefully, or who has more than a passing acquaintance with the historical role of the Texas Rangers \(the South Texas. Overwhelmingly, the Rangers functioned as the defenders of empire and propertyAnglo propertyand Kelton’s square jawed portrait of the “good Ranger,” rising above his role and surroundings, has an inevitable comicbook air, in which men are men, horses are horses, and moral authority belongs to the man with the sharpest eye and quickest draw. Of course in “real life” there is “bigotry on all sides.” But whether there is power on all sides is a question that does not seem to have occurred to Kelton, working fluently but a bit too comfortably in a genre that has more in common with romances of knight errancy than it does with “real life.” On that score the scholar Paredes is way ahead of him, and With His Pistol in His Hand is an indispensable corrective to the novel’s elision of history. BILLY LEE BRAMMER was under no delusions about power in Texas. His 1961 novel, The Gay Place, is among other things an extended fictional meditation on the gristly workings of political power, viewed from the skeptical perspective of a man who had seen those workings, up close, as a member of the Washington staff of then Senator Lyndon Johnson. Johnson was at least partly the model for Texas Governor Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker, who hovers over The Gay Place as Johnson dominated Texas politics for a generation, though never as governor. According to Don Graham’s new introduction, Brammer himself pointed to additional sources, including Louisiana’s 14 JULY 14, 1995
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