Sagebrush Bandit by Bliss Lomax, a review. (First draft)
I believe that if you stop reading a book one or two chapters before the end, it will often be a far better experience than if you carry on and read the whole thing. Partly, this this lie is a gift for myself, since there are so many books I have enjoyed reading but never got around to finishing. I will sincerely say “The Grapes of Wrath,” is one of my favorite novels, but I will not mention that I haven’t glanced at the last 80 or so pages.
Sagebrush Bandit –– with such a typically banal Western novel title–– you might think it would be bad from the get-go, but I thought it was great, as in “Great!” At the halfway mark I started having a conversation with myself that went, “Is this the best book I’ve ever read? Maybe not the best ever but, wow, possibly the best Western I’ve read. I can’t wait to see how it ends!”
The story follows a complicated but well defined plot that smartly twists along but never loses appeal… until it loses all appeal. My dumb and not wholly-accurate summary:
A bandit, disappointed with a curiously small score after a bold bank hold-up, decides he wants to clean up his act, become a better person, and go straight before he goes too far. But he’s not quite sure how to go about it. Then he reads a newspaper report about his robbery that indicates he got away with much more money than he did. After some thought he deduces that the bank had so little money because the banker had been embezzling.
The bandit returns to the scene of the crime, confronts the banker in private and offers the deal: “I won’t rat you out if you help me build a business in this town and become a respectable and helpful citizen.” The banker can’t tell on him, and he can’t tell on the banker. It could work, but the banker doesn’t believe the bandit is sincere, and he worries that the bandit will show his true colors at some point in the future and leave him to take the rap.
The tension builds nicely as the bandit moves into business and builds respectability and trust. The banker grows more fearful as the time passes. The bandit befriends another young man who is sure there’s oil in the ground near town and they embark on a venture to create an oil company, which also requires the banker get involved in the business. (There’s an interesting overview of the processes of finding and extracting oil in the late 1800s, and it’s eye-opening as to how much work had to be done and how much money had to be spent just to find out if there truly was oil in a likely spot. The novel is educational, too!)
In other threads of the tale, the bandit takes an interest in two women. First, his partner’s girl. She is cast in the mold of a pure hearted lass but she rises above the cliche of goody-two shoes cardboard cutout; and I should mention that she also happens to be the banker’s daughter, which might seem like it’s too much, but it works well. Second–– another possible cliche the author fleshes out nicely–– the bandit falls for a beautiful wealthy widow who raises racehorses and runs a ranch. She is wise and canny with a bit of a mean streak, and she finds the bandit attractive because she senses he is more than a social ladder climber. The women are both strong characters and handled with as much panache as the male leads –– very refreshing in a Western penned in the 50s.
As relationships evolve and secrets bubble crudely to the surface, the bandit begins to demonstrate that perhaps he hasn’t completely turned from the outlaw’s life, and there may be more sinister subconscious tendencies at work in his schemes. Excitement builds as the uncertainty of the outcome entices and the potential of the literary symbolism feels dark, heavy and ready to blow.
Sadly, it all blows dark and heavy into the toilet. Gosh, it was great, until those last 20 pages.
Coincidence, convenient departure, timely deaths and fortunate misfortunes befall everyone who might trip up the bandit in his hope for a reformed life. He gets the girl, comes clean, becomes a success and we are reassured that all will be forgiven. I can’t think of any comparable entertainment experience that shifted from so good to so bad in the final stretch.
Ah well. Great cover, tho.
I’d read another Bliss Lomax novel, but I’d do it with the intention of stopping two chapters shy of the finish.
Afterword: I just did a quick search on Bliss Lomax and I see that was a pen name for Harry Sinclair Drago, who was a popular western writer up until the 70s. He wrote close to 130 books, so I’m sure there’s a really good one or two in there.