Journal of the Gun Years by Richard Matheson (1991)
Matheson's storied career covers a lot of ground: television, movies, mystery, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, horror, war, metaphysics, and -- of course -- westerns. Before the appearance of this novel, however, few realized that Matheson had an interest in the West, although he had previously published stories and had written scripts in the genre. Journal of the Gun Years brings out all of the author's strengths: tight plotting, vivid atmosphere, mythic elements, suspense, and pitch perfect characterization.
Journal of the Gun Years opens with the death of the book's protagonist, shot at age 31. Clay Halser's legend as a Western hero equalled that of Wild Bill Hickock Instead of the young, handsome, cocksure Halser of the past, he is now looking old, tired, haggard, and dishevelled. Clay is called out by a young man and, when his gun misfires, is fatally shot. The witness to this is Frank Leslie, a friend and reporter who had chronicled Halser's life over the past dozen years. Halser had left behind a stack of jounals, which -- edited by Halser, who adds some commentary to flesh out the tale -- make up the book.
Halser's first journal was one he took off the body of a Confederate soldier. At nineteen, Halser finds himself facing nineteen rebel soldiers. All fear leaves him then as he quickly fires his rifle again and again, killing eleven men and causing a rout that led to a Union victory. Halser is unwounded, somehow protected from the enemy fire. This event led to positive newspaper coverage and to Clay's determination to lead an exciting life.
But an exciting life was not in his immediate future. When he goes home to his mother's farm, it's a life of boredom and drudgery for Clay, who is the support for his nagging mother and his six younger siblings. He finds himself engaged to a local girl and wonders how he can ever have the exciting life he wants. Fate intervenes when the son of an important businessman pulls a knife on Clay during a card game. Clay kills the man in self defense, but realizes that the dead man's father's wrath is enough to railroad him to jail and worse. Clay Halser flees, heading west to his destiny.
Clay has both pride and a quick temper, a combination he tries to keep in check. When he rides shotgun on a stagecoach he receives an arrow in his leg during an attack by Sioux Indians. While his valor and skilled shooting during the attack draws more attention to Clay, his wound curtails his stagecoach job. The company places him as an assistant at one of their way station while he recovers. There is little recovery for him there, however; his boss is a large, bullying, sadistic homosexual/pederast who overworks and tortures Clay, allowing no time for the leg to heal. The boss viciously attacks Clay with a whip -- an attack that will blind him at best, kill him at worse. Clay is forced to kill the man. Although the act was clearly self defense and there were many witnesses willing to testify to that, Clay is arrested, rushed to trial, sentenced to hang, and finds himself sharing the jail with a sociopathic, amoral murderer.
Breaking out of jail, Clay follows his destiny throughout the west, taming towns, fighting range wars, and building a reputation that is enhanced to mythic proportions by the press and by the yellowbacks supposedly based on his true adventures. Along the way many people die and Clay begins to believe his own press.
In Clay Halser, Matheson gives us a deeply flawed person who, in his own mind, at least, tries to do the right thing. Part hero, part outlaw, part bully, part peacemaker -- Clay Halser is an American tragedy whose character maps out his ultimate destiny. As we Halser's career, we also gain an insightful look at a fascinating time and place.
Journal of the Gun Years went on to win a best novel Spur Award from the Western Writers of America.
Todd Mason is filling in for Patti Abbott this week, collecting today's links at his indispensible blog sweetfreedom. Stop by for more of Friday's Forgotten Books.