In all the eulogies mourning the loss of E. L. Doctorow, you’ll read a lot about Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, World's Fair and The Book of Daniel—all justly-lauded novels by one of the great craftsmen of our time. But the passing of Doctorow at 84 on Tuesday, immediately sends me to my favorite of his works: his first and arguably greatest book, Welcome to Hard Times.
Here’s the setup: A cowboy rides into town. He enters the saloon; the swinging doors bang in his wake. He orders a drink, guzzles half the bottle, then reaches for the nearest prostitute. Without a word, he takes her upstairs and assaults her. When the girl’s lover intervenes, the stranger kills him. Then the cowboy steals a horse. Then he single-handedly runs all the frightened citizens out of town. Then he sets fire to the town and burns it to the ground.
movie starring Henry Fonda in 1967), it’s a grim look at the Old West. There’s nothing pretty inside these pages; but once you start reading, I dare you to set the book down again. I’m practicing what I preach: this morning, I picked up the novel and started re-reading it for the third time. Everything else on today’s to-do list can wait.
The cowboy with no name is known simply as the Man from Bodie and once he destroys the North Dakota town of Hard Times (those events listed above all happen in the first chapter, by the way), he rides off into the horizon…momentarily leaving the rest of Hard Times’ diverse set of characters to pick up the pieces. Welcome to Hard Times centers on how the town (if that’s what you can call a few ramshackle board-and-tarpaper buildings) is rebuilt from its ashes.
It’s also about how the oppressed citizens rebuild their hope in the wake of complete disaster. While the Man from Bodie is rampaging through the early pages of the book, the stunned and frightened citizens go jelly-legged—especially after the MFB’s first victim, one brave man who dared to confront the villain with a single stick of wood, comes reeling out of the saloon doors with his head bashed in and dies before the sun goes down. There is no High Noon Gary Cooper here, Doctorow seems say as he illustrates that famous saying: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Doctorow is pretty heavy on the symbolism here—the Earth is scorched, the phoenix rises, the will of man triumphs. As in his other novels like Ragtime, Doctorow celebrates the endurance of the American spirit. If you’ve read those books, however, and come to Welcome Hard Times expecting to see historical figures like Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp woven into the narrative, you’ll be disappointed. Here, the Old West is pure invention and it’s pure terror. I’ve never met a literary cowboy as fearsome as the Man from Brodie—think Jack Palance in Shane….then multiply him by ten.
One of the things I like best about Welcome to Hard Times is the control Doctorow has over the language, as sure and firm as a well-seasoned cowboy in the saddle who refuses to let the bronc get away from him. The book opens with two great paragraphs that plunge us right into the middle of the action in no-nonsense fashion:
The Man from Bodie drank down a half bottle of the Silver Sun's best; that cleared the dust from his throat and then when Florence, who was a redhead, moved along the bar to him, he turned and grinned down at her. I guess Florence had never seen a man so big. Before she could say a word, he reached out and stuck his hand in the collar of her dress and ripped it down to her waist so that her breasts bounded out bare under the yellow light. We all scraped our chairs and stood up— none of us had looked at Florence that way before, for all she was. The saloon was full because we watched the man coming for a long time before he pulled in, but there was no sound now.The narrator is a middle-aged man named Will Blue who is the de facto mayor of Hard Times, a hardscrabble place one tumbling sagebrush away from a ghost town. Blue’s also a coward, and that makes all the difference to the fate—and eventual redemption—of the town and its residents. Blue must not only reconstruct his town, he has to rebuild his character. When one of the working girls Blue had tried to enlist into assassinating the Man from Bodie with a stiletto calls him on his cowardice, he is shaken to his core. Recovering from her severe burns, she summons Blue to her side:
This town was in the Dakota Territory, and on three sides—east, south, west—there is nothing but miles of flats. That's how we could see him coming. Most times the dust on the horizon moved east to west—wagon trains nicking the edge of the flats with their wheels and leaving a long dust turd lying on the rim of the earth. If a man rode toward us he made a fan in the air that got wider and wider. To the north were hills of rock and that was where the lodes were which gave an excuse for the town, although not a good one. Really there was no excuse for it except that people naturally come together.
“Take care of me Blue?” she said softly.As a reader, I’m paw-swiped as well. Just look at the tense juxtaposition at work in those words: “what a sweet smile it was, full of hate.” E. L. Doctorow sure knew how to boil his sentences, didn’t he?
“Yes Molly, if you allow.”
Still smiling she said “Mayor”—whispering so that I bent down and put my ear almost to her lips—“if I had that knife now I wouldn't drop it. I would stick it in you and watch the yellow flow.”
For a moment I didn't understand, I could not reconcile the words with the smile on her face. But I looked at her and saw what a sweet smile it was, full of hate, and I felt as if I had been swiped to the ground by the paw of a big cat.
Reading this book—with its mythic clash between good and evil—reminds me of cinematic westerns like Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven and, especially, HBO’s Deadwood. Interestingly enough, Doctorow was inspired to write this first novel after working as a script reader for Columbia Pictures in the late 1950s, an era when cowboy movies were all the rage. However, Doctorow cleverly turns the horse opera stereotype on its head. If you're not a fan of sagebrush prose, don’t let the notion that this is a “western” dissuade you from reading this short, intense book. This is closer to Joseph Conrad than it is Louis L’Amour.
I read Welcome to Hard Times long before I’d heard of Doctorow’s other (more popular) novels. Maybe it’s all part of that “first and favorite” syndrome where the initial impression of a book (or film or song) is the best one, but even now as I return to the pages of Welcome to Hard Times for the third time, I see I wasn’t off in my assessment: this is great literature which should be mentioned in the same breath as Ragtime, et al.
If you’ve never read anything by E. L. Doctorow, the sad occasion of his death is as good a time to start as any. By all means, start with Ragtime or The Book of Daniel, but when you’re through there, don’t forget to pay a visit to Hard Times.