05 May 2010

Book review: Crossroads

Crossroads (1920)
By Frederick Faust writing as John Frederick

This spring has turned into a Frederick Faust Festival for me. I haven’t read the great Western pulp author in concentrated doses in a while, and getting to know this remarkable pulp master again reminds me of why I find his work so inspiring and humbling.

I recently reviewed one of Faust’s most unusual novels, Luck. Crossroads is its sequel, and it started its serial run in Argosy five months after Luck concluded, under the pseudonym “John Frederick.” (Like everything else Faust wrote, it’s now published under the “Max Brand” name.) Crossroads makes for a strange sequel, because the hero of Luck, Jesuit novice Pierre le Rogue, never appears in it except in passing mention. Faust chose instead to follow the exploits of his unusual heroine, outlaw daughter Jacqueline “Jack” Boone, who inherited the mystical Cross of Meilan from Pierre in the closing chapters of Luck.

The story does not open on Jack, however, but on its new male hero to replace Pierre, Dix Van Dyck. In the classic Faust mold, Dix is a tough but not malicious man whose trouble and reputation come from an inability to hold back a primal violence akin to the West itself. Dix angers the powerful sheriff of Guadalupe, Señor Oñate, because he killed the sheriff’s brother in self-defense. Sheriff Oñate is not a man who forgives, and so Dix and leaves the Southwest: “His destination was—the world.”

When he arrives in the town of Double Bend, he encounters Jack Boone. Faust gives his heroine a tremendous entrance as he describes the contradiction of a fighting woman who is also respected—something unheard of in the real U.S. frontier. However, no man will approach the beauty, and from another denizen of the saloon Dix learns why (and consequently the reader learns the back story from Luck necessary to understand the sequel): Jack is rumored to have killed the notorious outlaw Bob McGurk, and she carries the mysterious power of a gold cross that grants her astonishing luck, but gives bad luck to anyone else around her. Although warned away from the woman in the strongest terms, Dix approaches Jack to brave the evil fortune she carries because she’s as entrancing to him as she is to us through Faust’s prose:
Her eyes widened, and she cast a glance over her shoulder—as if fate listened there, an impalpable presence, grinning invisibly at the warning she spoke to Dix Van Dyck. She had been beautiful even when she sat there impassively, but now that a color was flushing the olive-tinted skin and life had come into her eyes, she was the most lovely woman Dix Van Dyck had ever seen. She thrilled him like a strain of music. She uplifted him like a message of noble poetry. She lured him like the purple distances of the desert.
Is there any doubt that Frederick Faust was a poet by calling?

Jacqueline and Dix do briefly fall into partnership when the news comes that Oñate’s reach extends this far to north, and a marshal is on the way to arrest Dix. Already, the negative power of the cross is working. Jacqueline helps him escape into the hills, but she will not stay with him, and rides off even though she now feels the draw toward him that he feels toward her.

It’s often easy to tell where the serial breaks of the original magazine publication fall, because every forty-five pages or so in Crossroads, the scene will suddenly shift and break up the continuous action. In Chapter 9, a sixth of the way through what was first published as a six-part serial, the prose camera pans away from hero and heroine over to the adversary of the tale, Señor Oñate, a character who makes me appreciate how easy a Mac keyboard came make the Spanish letter ñ.

Sheriff Oñate is a complex and well-examined villain, an Indian with racial memory of his Aztec ancestors and a baroque feel for vengeance. He wants Dix dead for his supposed role in the death of Oñate’s brother, but dead his way, and with the reward going to him. Oñate goes to the state governor and uses his influence and power to sway the man put a price of a thousand dollars on Dix’s head.

Oñate has a specific device for catching and killing Dix Van Dyke: a Yaqui assassin nicknamed “El Tigre.” Faust spends a great deal of time in this section of the book exploring the history of Oñate and the Yaquis; it would seem a waste to move away from the action, but Faust knew how to inject emotion into both sides of tale, fleshing out his psychological drama from all angles. And in his poetic hands, everything on the page is worth reading. Faust also starts to develop a tangled, Sophoclean relationship between El Tigre’s daughter, Dolores, and the two powerful men in her life. The level of physical and mental sadism between Señor Oñate and Dolores make for weird and powerful scenes of the sort readers would not expect in a pulp Western.

The dialogue between El Tigre and Dolores, supposedly translated from their native Yaqui tongue, is overly archaic and one of the few places where the novel starts to show its age. But as this style remains steady in the story, it starts to take on a level of unreality that suits the strange places the book goes, and the even stranger places that Dolores goes. She’s an intensely sexual character, although the writing cannot specifically draw attention to it, but the boiling tensions are obvious and they continue to build throughout the second half.

As the episodic sections of Crossroads unfurl, another villain materializes, the “big boss” behind the state governor, Joe Mitchell. He has his own reasons for wanting Dix Van Dyck dead, because he’s playing a power game with Sheriff Oñate. Another character tossed into events without any set-up late in the story is Dix Van Dyck’s younger brother, Joseph. Faust hastily weaves these threads into his story, not very successfully, but they don’t end up endangering the continual growing drama between Dix and Oñate; their conflict and coming confrontation consume the whole story, with Dolores and Jacqueline finding themselves coming to the metaphoric “crossroads” of the title in their own lives with regards to these two powerful men on a course of possible mutual destruction.

Although Faust can turn out astonishing action writing—there’s a jail-break sequence in the final third that almost sets the pages on fire—he depends on the rise of suspense and the sense of dark destiny for the final effect. As the page count moves into the last installment of the serial, the Cross of Meilan gains in importance once more as an artifact that brings luck and death in the same stroke. The slow, dour strains of a tragic symphony start to play as the characters move in sonorous slowness toward the finale . . . and a conclusion I could not have anticipated until Faust sprang it on me.

I enjoyed Crossroads more than Luck, although the first book has more mystery to it, even if it frustrates at times because of it. Crossroads has a clearer adventure, and its gives center stage to Jacqueline Boone, one of the most intriguing female characters in any Western novel. Dix Van Dyck, however, misses the unusual characteristics of Pierre le Rogue before him. The powers of the cross are also diminished until the finale in favor of the pursuit plot and the schemings of Señor Oñate. At least Oñate make an interesting and many-sided villain, and he’s responsible for bringing in a dark psycho-sexual angle to the tale.

Crossroads did not follow Luck immediately into book publication, however. Luck was published by H. K. Fly only a year after its magazine run as Riders of the Silences. But Crossroads didn’t make it to bookstores until 1997 and the University of Nebraska Press hardcover edition. It took another eleven years for Leisure Western to put it out in paperback.