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fighting men

18 june 2010

Ralph Cotton's characters favor very large guns. When they fire their guns at other, equally expendable characters, large holes are punched in them, the size of easily-pictured fruit. Alternatively, the doomed characters simply disintegrate . . . well, I'd better let Cotton describe this in his own words:

When Cook swung the reloaded gun around and pulled the trigger, Shumate lifted from his saddle amid the loud blast and disappeared in a red cloud of flesh, bone, and saddle fragments. His horse, catching a nonlethal peppering of sharp iron fragments, ran away whinnying. (271)

Fighting Men, Cotton's latest "supermarket Western," features pictures of two of the title characters on the cover. They are vaguely supposed to represent heroes Sherman Dahl and Eddie Lane, who spend the novel tracking down and killing a considerable portion of the population of the Old West. One of them holds a rifle and looks on skeptically as the other waves a couple of revolvers around, a constipated expression on his face, for all the world like some befuddled suburban ex-jock whose wife has just disapproved of his hoisting his seventh and eighth beers out of the cooler.

"Fighting men," the characters explain in the course of the book, are those who kill bad guys, sometimes for reward but mostly just on general principles. They may occasionally be sheriffs or deputies (Lane is the latter), but mostly there is no functioning justice system in Cotton's West, and certainly no wimpy crime-fighting techniques like arrest, trial, or incarceration. As a result, more men are killed in gunfights in this one novel than probably died by such means in the entire history of the American frontier.

In fact, when reading a Ralph Cotton novel, you are often surprised that the characters have lived long enough to get killed. They have absolutely no scruples, place no value on human life, are careless with firearms, and do not possess the common sense that God gave a rabbit. Few of them survive the chapters in which they are introduced.

Clearly, the way to clean up such litter is to send steely hypermasculine cases like Dahl and Lane riding out after them. Unfortunately these heroes are so steely and uncommunicative that they barely cooperate. When they finally meet, on page 192, each announces to the other that he works strictly alone. They're about to part company on that note when Dahl suggests that "we're going to be shooting at each other if neither of us knows what the other is doing" (192), at which point they agree at least to coordinate their fields of fire. This simple pact rids the world of another few dozen villains.

All these ephemeral, interchangeable victims bring the need for better proofreading into focus. Late in the novel, this exchange occurs.

They watched Big Chicago and Dick Thatcher top the crest on horseback . . . "There's the son of a bitch I want to see spitting up blood," Big Chicago said to Hatcher. . . . "Wait, Chicago," said Thatcher. "We can get away from him." (274-275)
Hell, Thatcher, Hatcher, it probably doesn't matter at this point, because they've got about a page-and-a-half to live. But Signet, take heed: your audience has a longer attention span than you assume.

Cotton, Ralph. Fighting Men. New York: Signet, 2010.