Review of Denzel
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/8/16
A few weeks ago, my wife, Jessica, and I were attending a local weekend arts and crafts fair at one of the smaller towns in Western Texas. On any given weekend there are likely to be 5 or 6 such events going on, wherein vendors large and small hawk their clothes, arts, crafts, music, and other things. At one such booth I came upon an old man hawking a series of western novels he wrote and self-published. Having been taken with the words and works of San Angelo writing legend Elmer Kelton, some years back, I was hoping that perhaps I might discover a diamond in the rough, so to speak. After almost ten minutes of gabbing, I felt almost obliged to buy one of his books, which all sold for $15 each. This was especially so when I mentioned Kelton’s name, and my surprise and enjoyment at having discovered that his best work well exceeded the literary hackwork of lauded MFA writers like Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and the like. I thus asked him which of the 6 or 7 titles he had on sale was the best of his books. The man paused, then said, ‘Well, it’s hard to say, as they’re all my babies,’ and after talking of a trilogy of books based on one character, Mitt Stone, he pointed to his two latest novels, Concho and Phantom Herd, his very latest book. But, after pressing him, and saying I only wanted one book, and his best, he offered me up Concho to read.
According to the man, whose name is Denzel Holmes (http://www.denzelholmes.com/), a retiree who turned to writing in his golden years, Concho was the best because he had gotten better over the years with characterization and other elements of writing. Thus, it was Concho I purchased. Having been to San Angelo, Texas, where Kelton was from, and knowing a bit of that area, situated on the Concho River, I figured this book would be easier to follow geographically. It was. Unfortunately, the 371 page, approximately 115-120,000 word book, is, overall, not that good. As someone who has championed the works of self-published and indy authors before, such as Eddie Stimpson, Jr.’s My Remembers and Elliot Rais’s Stealing The Borders, as well that of Kelton, this was a disappointment. But, fair is fair, and good criticism is good criticism, so excelsior!
Concho is divided into two halves rather neatly. The first half of the book introduces the novel’s main characters, and sets up the main plot of the book- the founding of Fort Concho and Santa Angela (later San Angelo) due to the building of a dam along the Concho River by one Matt Altmann, descendant of German royalty, and the peregrinations of would be cattle baron Bob Guthrie and his cowboys. Guthrie owns part of the land that will become a lake if Altmann’s plans to build the dam come through, hence, Altmann and Guthrie start out as rivals- or what would now be termed in the 21st Century, ‘frenemies.’ The main antagonists of the tale are a bullish real historical figure named Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, and a far too stereo typical Mexican bandito named Railo. While the first half of the book does a solid to good job of setting up the tail, its best moments are in developing the minor characters in Altmann’s clan and Guthrie’s employees. By contrast, Mackenzie has no real life outside that of a typical military man, and Railo seems to be a fifth rate version of the bandito characters that New York born Jew, Eli Wallach, used to essay in westerns such as The Magnificent Seven and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.
Now, before I get to the second half of the book, let me admit that when I review films and books I tend not to give a damn about revealing the ends of these works, as real criticism must take on works in their entirety. The very concept of ‘spoilers’ is a product of this Lowest Common Denominator intellectual and artistic culture we are drowning in. Hence, I will reveal the errors that doom the second half of the book to be significantly worse than the first half. If I’d grade the first half of Concho to be a good, solid and readable 70 to 75 out of 100, the second half barely reaches 50, and it’s a stretch of generosity on my part to claim the whole book should be seen as a barely passable novel that grades out at 65 of 100. Given that Holmes claimed this was his best book, I really have no interest in exploring the further bounds of his diegetic universe.
But, on to the second half. I won’t get specific, but merely state that everything one could expect to happen, given the narrative and character thrusts I’ve mentioned, indeed does happen, exactly as expected. Altmann gets his dam built, Bob Guthrie finds true love, Railo gets his comeuppance in predictable Western style, and Mackenzie, well, he’s just there as a historical prop. Yes, there are Comanches and battles with them and Railo’s banditos, but one of the biggest wastes of time and narrative comes in an utterly pointless and way, way, way too long (dare I refrain from interminable?) digression that follows the thieving and recovery of some of Guthrie’s horses that ostensibly opens up other digressions, except that not a one of these digressions advances characterization, nor rises above mere plot contrivance. Concho is therefore not a literary novel in any sense, just a generic Western that could have been a bit more had its second half not fallen apart so terribly.
That stated, I wanted to give an example of Holmes’s writing style but there literally was nothing I could find that would set his writing apart as uniquely Holmesian. However, since Holmes does give a bit of his first chapter on his website, let me quote from the book’s start, and interpolate comments within:
“M.L., how did you talk me into riding horseback all the way back to
Texas?” Bob Guthrie asked as they dismounted just south of the Red River.
About half their return journey from Kansas was done. “We could’ve seen lots
of new country takin’ the train to New Orleans, and a coach to San Antonio.”
nonchalant start. This sort of opening to a chapter, and especially a novel, can
work, if the rest of the novel’s peripheral tools are top notch, if there is
depth and poesy lurking in the interstices between the seeming prosaic nature of
the narrative, but in this case, the in medias res start is merely
typical of the hum-drumness that follows.
“Wull, boss, I done told ye,” M.L. Carter said as he lifted his
tattered hat and wiped his brow. “I lost all muh money in Dodge City. Besides,
I didn’t wanta leave these three horses behind.”
“I would pay for your ticket. You could owe
me. You’re always owin’ me anyway.” Bob grinned.
“Wuz ye gonna buy the horses some train
“No, but we didn’t take the train
anyway,” Bob said as he dragged the saddle and a sweat soaked blanket from
Jubilee, his bay gelding. “Now, since you’re gettin’ a little long in the
tooth, I might remind you that I own half interest in these horses. That’s
what kept you from gambling them away.”
M.L. drew several two-foot iron stakes from
loops on his saddle. “I reckon it is, seein’ as how you wuz standin’ right
over my shoulder when I bet my last cartwheel.” He twirled his right hand.
“Hot damn, I still think if I coulda placed one more bet, I’da took that
“Yeah, well I came out ahead and I never
placed a bet.” Bob wiped Jubilee’s legs and belly with a burlap bag,
grateful that the unpredictable Red was running low. Grateful also that they had
made it through Indian Territory with but one chase by the lively inhabitants.
“I’ll wipe the horses down while you stake them. This is a good camp
examine the dialogue. While not laden with clichés, there is no depth to these
conversations. BY that, I mean the characters, here and throughout, show no
introspection- not even offhandedly; meaning that we, as readers, can see depths
in these characters that they do not even recognize. There is also no
individuation of the characters in temperament. If one is to open a novel so
prosaically, it should be at a moment where the characters are in some sort of
dialogue between themselves that exhibits a tension. There is none here, and,
furthermore, the attempt at a West Texas accent, even a 21st Century
one, is hit and miss; much less if one wants to return to that of the late 19th
I was the trail boss, a fourth interest in the herd, Bob thought as M.L.
walked off fifty yards. I’d be some kind of a fool if I left Dodge stone
broke. The problem with riding back to Texas was the five thousand and fourteen
dollars he carried in his saddlebags. He allowed that he’d be safer on a
train. Maybe not. At least M.L. had won a few rounds earlier, with Bob’s
backing, and acquired three trail worn horses besides his lean mount. The
animals could be a great asset if they made it home.
Bob watched M.L. driving stakes, setting them
just the right distance apart to keep the horses from tangling. What they’d
been through together, well, he could write a book. He missed those days when he
acted like M.L., wild nights of music, drink, food and women. He would always
love the man, three years his senior, who saved him from sure tragedy as an
orphan in Waco. Bob had matured after living with Mitt Stone’s family. He
discovered trail driving, and cattlemen like Shanghai Pierce saw potential in
him that he hadn’t seen in himself. God, was he grateful. He gazed over the
sandy Red River and twirled the cylinder of his Smith and Wesson .44 revolver.
That side Indians; this side white men. The danger wasn’t over.
When we get to San Antonio, I’ll have a
talk with M.L... No, I’m not goin’ to San Antonio. I’m out where the free
grazing land is. I can buy part of it, become a producer of cattle instead of a
drover. I hate to part ways with him, but… he’ll never settle down.
“I want to get a wife, like Mitt.” He glanced up to make sure M.L. hadn’t
heard the involuntary outburst of words.
Guthrie as the main narrator, here was the chance for Holmes to deepen the
character, les than a page in, but all we get are basics. Now, some might argue
that Holmes is telling a tale of an average man with an average tale with
average speech. But, that is not the basis of a good tale. Besides, Holmes is
ultimately the creator, and writing about dull and average things in a dull and
average way exhibits nothing in a writerly sense. A writer of substance makes
the seemingly prosaic more with the very nature and choice of words he uses.
Holmes does not; and then we get the first hints of melodrama with the next
banal sentence used to describe a banal Western moment:
A gunshot broke the stillness. Two more shots sounded along with a
ricochet from steel. Bob dropped to his knees, holding his horse’s reins. M.L.
drove a final hammer blow to the fifth iron stake. He crouched and drew his
pistol, facing west. Bob hadn’t determined a direction but lunged for the
Henry rifle in the saddle scabbard on the ground.
“Git down!” M.L. screamed. “They got a
bead on ye.” Bob dropped behind his sprawled saddle. His mind raced to
assimilate the shot sounds. One bullet had hit the stake M.L. was driving. Yet
he hit the iron a final blow.
M.L.’s revolver sounded. Pow! Pow-whomp!
Pow-whomp! is literally the best description the book likely has of any
moment or thing within.
In sum, Concho is not a good book, but not a terrible one. At best, one might argue it rises above mediocrity due to some good early characterizations, slowly built up, but this is a fictive world where everything is surface level, the characters never question the shimmer of the desert, nor the sounds of the winds. Predictable things eventually evidence themselves, and the immediate question a good critic would have to ask of any tale put up before him has to be, why am I being told this? What benefits does it avail me of? And, a fair answer, in regards to Concho is a cowpokerly shrug of the shoulders.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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