Ron Hansen: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
I‘ve always enjoyed the occasional western although racking my brains it would seem that my whole experience of the genre is limited to cinema, so it felt right, especially with the film adaptation’s upcoming release, to read my first western in Ron Hansen’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (1983), which, as titles go, contains two major spoilers for people, like myself, who are not versed in the Jesse James story, namely whodunnit and how things end for poor Jesse.
This isn’t a thriller, however, and is instead a measured attempt by Hansen to reconstruct the story of both Jesse James and Robert Ford, and present why things happened the way they did. I’ll confess I took me a few attempts to get into the novel as the prose is dense and Hansen parades his research throughout but, once past these opening chapters, the novel opens up and becomes more accessible as, with the background sown, the narrative can settle.
The Assassination Of Jesse James… begins with a character portrait of Jesse James, a Democrat with “a high, thin, sinew of a voice, a contralto that could twang annoyingly like a catgut guitar whenever he was excited” to whom “much of his science was superstition”. It drifts around his life, rhyming off facts, looking at his ability to intimidate men, about the number of suits he owns, his lack of vices, amongst an exhaustive list. Then there’s Ford (“a rail-thin, rough, and likeably ignorant country boy who apologized for his failings before they were found out”) who gets marginally less treatment. But, as soon as we’re introduced to them, the story heads off into an exciting account of a train robbery, giving us a sample of what it’s like to be – and be robbed by – the James gang.
The novel spans the seventeen years prior to the assassination and in this time the reader is invited to observe the lives of all the players as they scheme, rob, rustle, murder, and tend to their families. The action, as you would expect, centres on the James family: Jesse; his wife, Zee; their children. There’s love there, on all sides, but, at the same time, as Jesse’s fame grows:
Insofar as it wasn’t them that the James gang robbed, the public seemed to wish Jesse a prolonged life and great prosperity. He was their champion and their example, the apple of their eyes; at times it even seemed to Zee that she wasn’t Jesse’s only wife, that America had married him too.
After Jesse’s assassination the novel continues for another ten years, following the aftermath of Robert Ford’s action, the shooting of an unarmed James in the back. Ford at the time is only twenty years old and dreams only of the fame (and money) his act will garner, but the opposite rings true and he becomes a hate figure, because, as one governor puts it:
“A petty thief is generally despised and easily convicted; but one who steals millions becomes a sort of hero in the estimation of many. A man who commits one sneaking murder is regarded as the meanest of criminals and fit only for a speedy halter; but there is an illogical class of persons who cannot restrain a sort of admiration for one who has murdered many and shown no mercy, who has hesitated at no deed of darkness and inhumanity.”
Ford’s subsequent life after the assassination of Jesse James passes first through the courts where he is charged with murder, found guilty, and then acquitted. He struggles to make a life for himself, to make something of himself so that people will remember him for that rather than the filthy little coward that shot Jesse James. His life is spent on stage, at first, until he opens one saloon after another until his very own death by means not dissimilar to that of James. And while Ford is always one that claims to never care when he dies, there are hints in the text that he may just be all talk, such as the moment succeeding the Not Guilty result of another murder charge, where he faces the noose:
Bob crossed over to the jury box, grinning a little crazily and saying, “You did a courageous thing.” One man wiped his palm on his pants leg after Bob Ford clasped it.
What I particularly enjoyed about this novel was Hanson’s way with dialogue – each word spoken felt realistic – and description. I found myself nodding at some similes and metaphors, as I realised how well he’d nailed it, a memorable one being a discarded cigar in a puddle as having “canoed”. Sometimes, though, the description can give way to researched lists to convey information, which somewhat spoils the immediacy. The sheer verbosity, as is Hansen’s style, makes the 300 page novel seem double that, and it’s scenes with dialogue and thrilling description that thankfully lessen the blow.
While Hansen has done a great job in sustaining the story of James and Ford, I felt no closer to understanding them. Perhaps we are meant to make up our own minds, but I’m not sure I can truly do it when, despite all the positives on James, there’s no attempt to understand why he chose the life he did. Similarly, Ford. But while there’s no confirmation as to Ford’s ambition to be Jesse James, Hansen certainly leaves us wondering if he ever did.
As a trip to the western in literature, I was happy enough with The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford but I think I’d prefer something lighter on research in future. Hanson’s ability is never in question, although my own interest level was sometimes found wanting. But to my mind the novel is good, it’s bad, but never ugly, and only costs a fistful of dollars. And for a few dollars more, if it doesn’t interest you, there’s always the movie.
November 14, 2007