The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
by Ron Hansen
When recommendations come as strong as this, and the film-of-the-book is the next one you're expecting from a certain DVD delivery service, then it's time to get a move on (difficult when you're currently reading a 900 page wrist-sprainer) . I also hate westerns so I see this book as a further challenge to that prejudice after reading Cormac McCarthy's extraordinary Blood Meridian around this time last year.
Right from the first sentence you realise that this is not going to be the received tale of gunslingers and hold-ups and that whatever you think you might know about Jesse James, this is going to be a far more closely felt portrait of a real man in a real time.
He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree and the ground beneath it was scuffed soft as flour.
That last simile is just one example of Hansen's talent for delicious phrasing. On the same page he describes the family bible once owned by his Reverend father - 'the cover was cool to his cheek as a shovel', and later there are plenty more: the front of a slowing train touching the rocks that block its path 'with the chunk of a closed ice-box door', and the 'green suede of mold' covering discarded dinner plates which say so much about the mental state of the man who lives in that particular room. The first two thirds of this novel, whilst recounting the robberies and shoot-outs of the James gang, find their real strength in the the soul searching of the two principals, the familial connections between the characters and downright domesticity of those moments in between the action. Hansen's ability to get inside the heads of his characters brings the story to life in a way which lifts it not only above the realms of a simple non-fictional account, but above the possibilities of most writers of fiction resulting in some Hamlet-like moments of psychological enquiry. It even manages to remind one of those very modern themes of celebrity, notoriety and fixation so that far from being a historical artifact it is an incredibly relevant book.
Whilst Jesse is depicted as a man entering middle-age, his body scarred and deformed by his encounters, Bob is very much a youth; the youngest in his family, teased by his brothers for his fascination with Jesse. Under his bed is a shoebox filled with pictures, articles and mementos like a discarded cigar stub; Bob is like a teenage fan but with that unhealthy streak of obsession so that he is able to recite facts and figures, answering any question put to him like a child at a spelling bee. At one point he even reads a description of Jesse to the man himself, prompting him to point out that he 'ain't Jesus'. But the relationship between these two deepens. In a world where it seems no man can really trust another nor be seen without a gun by side Bob has rare access inside Jesse's armature. Even as Jesse has these moments where the defenses are lowered we know that Bob is the last person he should be trusting.
In one memorable scene the cat and mouse game begins in earnest, Bob steals upon Jesse as he bathes, unaware of being watched. Not only naked but stripped of his guns as well he is wracked by coughs and Bob smiles as he thinks 'You are old Jess. You are dying even now'. After Bob teases him for being caught unawares Jesse muses, 'I can't figure it out: do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?' This taps into that almost Shakespearean theme of supplanting those in power. Bob sees Jesse as the means of attaining the life he deserves whether by allying himself to him or destroying him.
I've been a nobody all my life. I was the baby; I was the one people picked on, the one they made promises to that they never kept. And ever since I can recall it, Jesse James has been big as a tree. I'm prepared for this Jim And I'm going to accomplish it. I know I won't get but this one opportunity and you can bet your life I'm not going to spoil it.
Guns, unfortunately, have a huge significance in American culture and identity even today. Hansen has the skill to tap right into this and represent the violence in a way that makes it feel genuinely violent rather than glorious; by describing the course a bullet takes, the devastating damage it can cause to many parts of the body it makes you realise the capricious accident of death by the gun rather than making it seeming like the skillful killer shot. This makes the soul searching that bit more convincing; are these men haunted by the lives they have so easily taken away with the click of a hammer? By following the many members of the gang to the grave you are left with the conclusion that they must be, even Jesse who claims to sleep just fine.
I go on journeys out of my body and look at my red hands and my mean face and I get real quizzical. Who is that man who's gone so wrong? Why all that killing and evil behaviour? I've been becoming a problem to myself. I figure if I can get you right I'll be just that much closer to me.
The final third of the book has a much more non-fiction feel, almost like those bits of text at the end of a film that tell what happened next to the principal players. Whilst Hansen does this well, particularly the final few pages, it is a shame that he isn't able to sustain the quality and breathing space accorded to the earlier sections. But this is a small quibble with an otherwise excellent book. Combining the best aspects of non-fiction (exhaustive research lightly worn) and fiction (convincing and detailed characterisation that takes you inside the minds of these men and women) I'm glad I had the time to read it before approaching what I hope will be an equally impressive film.