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the hart brand

27 may 2008

There's a particular kind of book that I love to read (and have on occasion reviewed here): the "supermarket Western." By this I mean quite literally a Western that you buy at the supermarket. The racks of mass-market paperbacks at your typical Kroger or Tom Thumb here in North Texas – filled by the same distributors who stock the magazine racks – have been dwindling over the years, but they have not disappeared. They contain the top ten bestsellers, a few dozen romances of various subgenres, some spy thrillers, some self-help and advice books, the occasional SF – and, two or three times a year, a standard Western novel. I always examine it carefully before tossing it in my cart. I don't want a Western historical romance or an alternative-history spy-thriller Western or some kind of steampunk with cybercattle. I want a book that contains rustlers and rattlesnakes.

I am happy to report that there are several rustlers and quite a few rattlesnakes in The Hart Brand by Johnny D. Boggs, along with a kind-hearted cook, an evil hired gun, a good hired gun, some horses with personality, and considerable cactus – not just cactus serving as scenery, mind you, but crucial plot-point cactus.

The Hart Brand is set in southeastern New Mexico in the 1890s. Civilization is making its inexorable way across the West, but pockets of old-fashioned cowboy mores survive. The narrator, Caleb Hart, looks back from the year 1929 to tell the story of how he went from his native St. Louis at the age of 14 to ride for his uncle Franklin Hart's brand in the hard country around Las Cruces. "Brand" in the title and pages of the book means both a literal cattle brand and the larger values that a particular code of ranching stands for, in a world where honor prevails but where a fair amount of skepticism about that honor, backed up with firearms, is a useful fallback position.

(It's a long way from the cowboy concept of "riding for the brand" to the ubiquitous 21st-century marketing concept of "branding," but the persistent analogy is interesting. Most marketers today are fairly cynical, while being realistic, about the necessity of pushing brand-consciousness 24/7. The Hart Brand gives us a world where the brand is a simpler thing, with its atavistic codes of honor and violence, but also with a strong component of unquestioning family loyalty. As businesspeople jet across the country focussed on such projects as turning Kraft Macaroni & Cheese into a line of snack crackers, they may grab The Hart Brand in an airport convenience store to transport them back into a world where brands were purer, less mercenary, less hyped and spun.)

Caleb works hard mucking stables and stringing barbed wire for his uncle, but he doesn't show much cowboy potential, and steely Franklin Hart tells him to draw his pay and head back to Missouri. Well, this happens on page 100, so we know it can't last. Caleb gets his second chance not by showing any skill on horseback or with a rope: he wins it by facing down evil gunmen in a couple of different verbal confrontations. As so often in Westerns, knowing what (and just how much) to say is the most valuable skill a cowboy can possess.

The ensuing chapters are a standard mix of raw gunplay with occasional pokes at the rank sentimentalist beneath the leathery skin of every cowboy. As so often in popular fiction, there comes a point when so many balls (or bullets) are in the air that you just want them to fall again so you can savor the quieter atmosphere evoked here and there in scene-setting chapters. But The Hart Brand ultimately succeeds at both atmosphere and action. I hope the next Western that fetches up at the local Kroger is as good.

Boggs, Johnny D. The Hart Brand. 2006. New York: Leisure Books, May 2008.

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