18 April 2010

Book review: Luck

Luck (1919)
By Frederick Faust writing as John Frederick

Although he is one of my favorite authors, I have almost never written about Frederick Faust before on this blog. One of the reasons I rarely discourse about Mr. Faust is that it is tricky to come to grips with his work because there is so bleeding much of it.

Do you want to hear some scary stats? Well tough, here goes. . . .

Between 1917 and his death in 1944, Faust published approximately thirty million words of fiction. With the average novel size of 60,000 words, that means Faust produced around five hundred novels in his lifetime. If we go by NaNoWriMo book length, he wrote six hundred novels, meaning he could have won NaNoWriMo six centuries running. Even if we hulk up the novel word-count to 120,000—common in today’s book market—that still gives Faust two hundred and fifty novels written in twenty-seven years. His bibliography in The Max Brand Companion runs sixty pages long. New novels and short story collections never published previously in book form are released at the rate of one a month since his death sixty-six years ago. He wrote using nineteen different pseudonyms, and sometimes whole magazines issues contained nothing but his work under different names.

No brag, just fact. Do you begin to perceive the “Frederick Faust Dilemma”?

Or perhaps the “Max Brand™ Dilemma.” Brand is Faust’s most popular pseudonym, and today all his work is published under the Max Brand™ trademark, although the introductions and author blurbs use his real name. But since Faust never cared to have his real name on his fiction when he was alive, he wouldn’t feel bothered that he’s primarily known as Max Brand™ to this day. It is one the crispest pen names of all time, admittedly. And I love having an excuse to use the trademark symbol when I write Max Brand™. Like that.

Luck originally ran as a six-part serial the same magazine, under the pseudonym “John Frederick.” It was Faust’s third use of this name; it had appeared earlier that year on the serial The Hammer, and the year before that for The Double Crown. “John Frederick” was the second pseudonym that Faust started using after the creation of Max Brand™ for the 1917 short story “The Sole Survivor,” and he would continue to use John Frederick until 1933.

When Luck was released in book form in 1920 by H. K. Fly, the publisher retitled it Riders of the Silences. The 1986 Dodd, Mead edition—with Max Brand™ now credited as the author—was abridged and partially re-written. This happened many times with the Dodd, Mead editions. Nebraska University Press restored Luck in hardcover in 1997, and this is the basis for the current Leisure Western paperback edition. The public domain editions available on Project Gutenberg titled Riders of the Silences are also unabridged.

In 1919, Faust was rapidly reaching his apex as an author. Although not as absurdly prolific as he would be by the mid 1920s (twenty novels, thirty-six novellas in 1924 alone), he was turning out some of his most memorable work: The Untamed finished its serial run in January, Trailin’ started at the end of the year, and one of Brand’s best novellas, “The Sacking of El Dorado” was published in October. Luck comes in the middle of this fecund time and is an unusual, sometime hallucinatory book.

Faust’s hero in Luck is a character type that he loved to visit: a youthful powerhouse whose skill is his inherent wildness; an invincible yet innocent force of nature. Pierre Ryder, more often called Pierre le Rogue and “Red” Pierre, is a Jesuit novice in Canada who travels to the U.S. when he receives a desperate letter from his real father, one whom he has never known, asking the boy to come to him as he lies dying. Pierre departs against the wishes of Father Victor, but he goes with the Cross of Meilan, the novel’s central symbol and an intriguing intrusion of the possibly supernatural into what is supposedly a realistic Western. Pierre passes an initiation rite on his way south—the killing of two men in a gun duel he Pierre tries to raise money through gambling—to give him the Faust stamp of outlaw. Pierre arrives to find his father dying after a fight with the villain Bob McGurk.

It would seem at this point that Luck is a standard revenge yarn. But Faust takes the story in some odd directions and eventually orchestrates a sort of chamber room drama in the mountains among a small cast criss-crossing each other’s path on the road to tragedy.

It starts moving on this new path when Pierre tries to save the life of a girl named Mary Brown during a snowstorm. She apparently dies and Pierre is rescued by the outlaw gang of Jim Boone. Boone, who just lost his son, adopts Pierre as his own. The gang comes to an impasse with Bob McGurk, and Pierre defeats the man in a duel . . . but McGurk lives and vanishes to torment the gang another time.

When the story shifts forward six years and McGurk returns to start picking off Boone’s men one-by-one, Luck shifts from a dream-like state and starts feeling positively unreal. McGurk’s attacks read like phantom killings, committed by an unseen force, not a standard villain. Pierre floats between two women, the tomboy Jacqueline, a member of Boone’s gang, and the mysteriously resurrected Mary Brown. The cross around Pierre’s neck starts to become a true magical item, bringing fortune to its owner but always repaying it with misfortune to someone he loves.

Honestly, Luck might really turn off some Western readers. It’s quite weird, but not weird enough to count as a “Weird Western”, and falls in a gray zone. Faust mixes romanticisim with natural savagery; he did this in almost all the Westerns he wrote, but it’s extremely pronounced here. Faust’s West is a mythic one, but not an idealized one . . . it’s a strange place, where the author can choose to dwell over a dance and all its quaint details while the plot halts, and then turn out a violent showdown of which Sergio Leone would approve.

Luck is a fascinating book because of its tone and the gloss of the supernatural, but it isn’t among the strongest of the Faust novels I’ve read. And remember, although I’ve read many his books, it’s still only a fraction of what he wrote. As an action-adventure tale, it’s lacking in urgency in many places, and that’s uncommon for one of Faust’s stories. His prose is mostly beautiful, but at times it does dig into theatrical gestures that can pull a reader right out of the story. Nonetheless, Luck upholds the tradition that no Frederick Faust novel is a waste of time. For somebody so prolific, that’s a helluva compliment.

According to the official Max Brand website, a film adaptation of Luck is in the works. The front of the current paperback also makes this claim. It had said this for over two years now, and yet I can find no information anywhere about a movie version of this book, or of any other Faust project. I even posted about it back then—my only Frederick Faust post until now. I wrote to the Golden West Literary Agency to ask them about the movie project, and never heard anything back. I think I’m on safe ground when I say that there’s no Luck adaptation in the pipeline.

Faust wrote a sequel to Luck that followed it in Western Story Magazine the next year: Crossroads.