18 July 2011

Masterpiece: The Seventh Man

The Seventh Man (1921)
By Frederick Faust writing as Max Brand

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Prelim: The Seventh Man is in the public domain and available for free from Project Gutenberg in a variety of e-book formats. If you want a hard copy, there is a paperback print-on-demand edition available from Phoenix Rider; I do not know what the text quality is on it, but it’s only $5.99. Bottom line: no excuse not to give the novel a try.

Last year, I posted three articles about Frederick Faust, a staggeringly prolific author of Western fiction and other genres for the pulp magazines. Writing under the pseudonym “Max Brand” and eighteen others pen names, Faust was a one-man writing army that dominated the Western fiction field from the end of World War I until his death as a journalist on the Italian front in World War II. Readers responded positively to the three articles, the first covering Brand’s general career, the next analyzing a collection of his early Western short fiction, and the third examining his rare foray into science fiction, The Smoking Land.

But the response that interested me the most was my own. Those are among my favorite posts I’ve put up on Black Gate in the three years I’ve held this Tuesday spot. It isn’t that I feel proud of the writing and research on them. It’s that they made me realize what an anchor Frederick Faust is in my own writing, and how much I learn from him every time I read one of works. Reading Faust and researching his life and his letters is like coming home to a place that I don’t realize is “home” when I’m away from it.

So I’ve returned to the topic, and I’ve brought one of Faust’s great novels with me, The Seventh Man (1921). So far, I’ve only examined the Western through his short stories, but Faust’s major impact on the genre is in his novels.

The reason that Faust turned to writing novels (which at the time were published in the pulps in serial form) was because editor Bob Davis at Munsey Publications needed a writer to replace Zane Grey. Grey had captured readers’ attention in 1913 with Desert Gold in Street & Smith’s The Popular Magazine, one of the general interest pulps that were the most widely read in the ‘teens. Grey then started to sell to Bob Davis at Munsey and its stable of successful magazines. But after 1916, Grey broke into the higher paying market of the “slicks” with a sale to Collier; he moved on, never to return to the rough-paper magazines.

The young Frederick Faust landed in Bob Davis’s New York office at the right time. Faust had relocated from California to New York in a futile bid to get into the army and go overseas to fight in the war. His heart condition kept him out, so he tried to make a living as a poet in the city. Poetry paid as well then as it does now, and soon Faust was broke and desperate. He got an introduction to Bob Davis. The editor discovered in Frederick Faust a writer overflowing with skill who could dash out prose professional enough that it could be typeset right off the rolls of his Smith-Corona. In 1917, right as Brand started to sell, Davis wrote to him with this advice: “I regard you as a man of tremendous potentialities. With a few short strides you can bridge the chasm between yourself and fame and take a high place among the writing elite of this generation. Notwithstanding the trip is a short one, it is on a tight rope.” (This was, by the way, a response to a letter from Faust where he apologized for wandering into Davis’s office raging drunk.)

Over the next twenty years, Bob Davis would become one of Faust’s closest friends and advisors, and according to Faust scholar William A. Bloodworth Jr., “in some respects, a surrogate father.” He pushed early for Faust to write meaningful work instead of filler. “Damn you, Faust, it’s a crime for you to throw your fine genius overboard in this manner. Come in and talk with me about a rational story and get back to work on the earth. Can the bronze hair, the violet eyes, and the hectic flush.”

Davis encouraged Faust toward Western fiction, not only because of the need for someone to replace the Zane Grey popularity gap, but because he could see from Faust’s stories that this was his true field. In 1918, after Faust adopted the penname “Max Brand” (in a country at war with Germany, having an über-Teutonic name like “Faust” could prove a handicap), he published his first Western, the novella “Above the Law.” At the end of the year came his first novel, published serially in All-Story Weekly over December and January of 1918 and 1919. It was titled The Untamed and was a smash success. “In my opinion, The Untamed has made a sensation,” Bob Davis wrote after the book made it into hardcover that same year from Putnam and received glowing reviews. Fox snatched up the movie rights, and the next year released it with the top cowboy start in the business, Tom Mix, in the lead.

The Untamed is a milestone in fiction of the American West. (And also the best place for newcomes to start reading Faust. It’s also available for free.) The novel introduced the character “Whistling Dan Barry,” and its success led to three sequels: The Night Horseman (1920), The Seventh Man, and Dan Barry’s Daughter (1923). Dan Barry is an ambiguous figure for a time when most Western fiction was simple morality tales with bright, clean heroes. In The Untamed, Dan Barry is described as “the Pan of the Desert,” a wild figure drawn to the animal side of man, and mentally divided from civilization and incapable of accepting it. Angering him, no matter who you are, will lead to a fast death when the beast emerges.

However, over the first two novels, Dan Barry falls in love with beautiful rancher’s daughter Kate Cumberland and she with him. Dan Barry apparently abandons his animalistic side when Kate leaves her prosperous life to marry him and live in the mountains.

This is the situation as The Seventh Man begins. It’s the peak of the series, the culmination of Dan Barry’s story, although a further novel explores his descendant’s life. The Seventh Man is a masterpiece of its genre, but unusual both for its time and our own.

A short description of the central action shows part of what’s strange about The Seventh Man: Whistling Dan Barry swears to take seven lives in revenge for the killing of one horse. And the horse isn’t even Dan’s horse. Seven men must die for the one life of a horse. This sounds like a ludicrous suggestion in summary, but it makes horrid sense within the emotions of the story and the development of its characters. Especially its main character, a feral man whom civilization can hardly constrain. (It may also reflect Frederick Faust’s personality; he was a ardent lover of horses, although his heart condition prevented him from riding them.)

However, as I will get into later, the business of slaying seven men over a horse is only the framework for a more intense confrontation.

The novel does not begin with Dan Barry, but a miner named Vic Gregg. The opening chapter presents an idyll of the West, with its landscape as a cathedral. This does not last long, and in the rest of the book the West is more like a ragged graveyard, with men chasing each other through cracked and tilting tombstones. This was Frederick Faust’s West, no idealized virgin land but a cruel place that kills and breeds killers.

Vic Gregg heads to the town of Alder to visit his girl, Betty Neal, maybe get up the nerve to ask her to marry him. But he learns that his girl is planning to go to a dance with another man, Blondy Hansen. Gregg charges over to the saloon to confront Hansen, and ends up fatally shooting him. So ends the pleasant part of The Seventh Man.

The killing of Blondy Hansen is only the catalyst for the larger story. Vic Gregg heads into the mountains to escape the law. He finds safety in Dan Barry’s cabin. Dan and Kate live quietly with their young daughter, Joan, but Gregg’s arrival stirs Dan’s wilder instincts. He agrees to pose as Gregg, taking his horse Grey Molly, and lead away the posse following the fugitive so Gregg can escape. The posse turns out to be better shots than Dan imagined, and they kill Grey Molly from under him. Dan shoots down a man in response, but his vicious nature takes hold . . . one man isn’t enough. Seven have to die, including Sheriff Pete Glass and Vic Gregg, who started this mess.
“Tell ‘em one thing more. I thought Grey Molly was worth only one man. But I was wrong. They’ve done me dirt and played crooked. They come huntin’ me—with a decoy. Now tell ‘em from that Grey Molly is worth seven men, and she’s goin’ to be paid in full.”
Barry sets out on his vengeance trail with his two loyal and companions: the black stallion Satan, the fierce wolfhound Black Bart. They are as much killers as their human partner is.

Dan Barry’s fight to slay the seven men he holds responsible for Grey Molly’s death is the central action thread of The Seventh Man. It is not the main conflict, however. By the middle of the book, another desperate fight has started: the battle for the mind of a young girl. As the book enters the final third and the pursuit of Dan Barry becomes frenzied, the battle between Kate and Dan over who will posses the spirit of their daughter Joan turns epic. I’ve read novels about threats to wipe out the entire country that seem like fluffy, silly stakes compared to how Faust builds the intensity of the war over Joan Barry.
“Joan is only a baby—my baby. She’s half mine. She has my hair and my eyes.”

“I don’t care what the color of her eyes is, I know what’s behind them. Look at ‘em, and then you tell me who she takes after.”

“Buck, why do you talk like this? What do you want me to do?”

“A hard thing. Send Joan back to Dan.”

“Never!”

“He’ll never give her up, I tell you.”

“Oh, God help me. What shall I do? I’ll keep her! I’ll make her tame.”

“But you’ll never keep her that way. Think of Dan. Think of the yaller in his eyes, Kate.”

“Until I die,” she said with sudden quiet, “I’ll fight to keep her.”

And he answered with equal solemnity: “Until Dan dies he’ll fight to have her. And he’s never been beat yet.”
Fantasy plays an important role in Frederick Faust’s work, even when writing in a non-supernatural genre like the historical Western. Faust was not a religious man, but he knew the power of religion, superhuman forces, and human belief in both in fiction and used them to powerful effect. The subtle magic of the Cross of Meilan in his novels Luck and Crossroads show how he could blend subtle suggestions of the fantastic into his Westerns. In the Dan Barry novels, the main character’s wildness is painted as almost supernatural, as if the Greek god Pan had power over Dan. In The Seventh Man, Faust writes of Dan Barry’s nature as if it were infection that threatens to contaminate the only one who shares his blood, his daughter. Kate isn’t worried that Dan is a bad “influence” on Joan; she fears that simply being around him will awaken in Joan’s blood the same non-human nature.

Chester D. Cuthbert, a Faust collector, wrote a summation of Barry’s character in his essay “Strength!: Some Impressions of Max Brand”: “Dan Barry is one of the great characters of all Western fiction, and his nostalgic longing for the freedom of the wild strikes the universal chord of the primitive in all who read of him. Kate Cumberland’s struggle to tame that outlaw wildness, which is carried on into the story of their daughter, is no mean portrayal of woman’s civilizing influence throughout the ages.”

However, I would counter that Kate’s attempt to “civilize” Dan Barry ends in failure, and her resort is a brutal and un-civilizing one. Faust could not allow the primitive to win, but neither could he see a way to convincingly tame it. Faust could only follow his characters’ path toward tragedy. This stands in stark contrast with much Western literature that came before him, and the guidepost for most that followed, both on paper and on celluloid.

One of Faust’s great strengths as a writer was how he could pick small actions and minor characters and expand them into unforgettable segments. Faust must have thought that nothing in a book was too small to get passed up if he could instill it with intensity. The Seventh Man has some wonderful examples of this, such as child playing with a puppy that Faust makes in the pivotal point of the novel’s key conflict, or a clerk looking over a map and piecing together a plan to trap a bandit.

But the most remarkable moment of Faust elevating a bit part—both in The Seventh Man and in all of his work—occurs when Dan Barry tries to ride across a homestead after he gets corralled into a trap. The farmer runs from his house with a shotgun and prepares to shoot down the man crossing his land, and Dan knows the man is unlikely to miss. The farmer is never named, he only appears for one page in the book, but look what happens when Faust turns his prose to the man’s thoughts:
How many things went through his mind while he squinted down the gleaming barrel! He thought of the long labor on the farm and the mortgage which still ate the life of his produce every year; he thought of the narrow bowed shoulders of his wife; he thought of the meager faces of his children; and he thought first and last of ten thousand dollars reward! No wonder the hand which supported the barrels was steady as an iron prop. He was shooting for his life and happiness of five souls!
Before the page is over, the nameless farmer goes through an entire character arc, and the author tells us more about him in that short space than many authors can tell about their protagonists in a whole book. (Also, note the precision use of semicolons.)

It seems almost trivial to mention the action sections of the novel amid these character conflicts, but Faust maintains his same intensity and quality of writing in the gunfire-and-pursuit scenes. One chapter contains the amazing and rapid death of three characters in a fashion that you have to read to believe. It’s “drop-the-book” stunning, and it isn’t even the finale.

It is tempting to call the conclusion of The Seventh Man “shocking.” But that would undercut how Faust builds toward it and uses foreshadowing. The ending is more brazen than it is surprising, because the development of Kate Barry, the true protagonist of the novel, evolves in a natural way so that the finale feels inevitable. In Chapter XVIII, before the middle of the novel, the character of Lee Haines explicitly says exactly how this all will end. Readers will sense what is coming, but still hold back from the belief that the author will see it through. But he does, and creates the catharsis of Greek tragedy—an art form Faust knew well and loved more.

I do have a few criticisms, although they have more to do with the writing conventions of the time. The use of apostrophes replacing the first and last letters of words to indicate country twang, which you can see in my excerpts, is a bit distracting. Faust tends to fumble with young Joan’s dialogue, perhaps his own lack of experience with children. When he wrote the novel, his first child, Jane, was not yet two years old. But these problems are nits that immediately get run over by the next amazing moment in the story and the prose.

This is the second time I have read The Seventh Man, and more than twelve years have passed between them. I recall how much it impressed that younger version of me. The older version of me, who has learned much more about writing and its difficulties, is simply astonished with The Seventh Man. I have no hesitation in naming this one the finest novels I have read in any genre. That it is not considered one of the great American books of the 20th century is an unfortunate statement about how genre gets tossed in the gutter. The Seventh Man is, after all, “just a Western.”

And Hamlet is just a revenge thriller.

Addendum: As a reminder of Frederick Faust’s ludicrous productivity, shaming almost every author in history, here is a list of the other novels and novellas he wrote and published in 1921, under five different names: The Tiger, Iron Dust, White Heather Weather, Donnegan, The Guide to Happiness, Madcap of the Mountains, Ronnicky Doone, Black Jack, “The Cure of Silver Cañon,” “His Back Against the Wall,” “Jerico’s ‘Garrison Finish’,” “When the Wandering Whip Went West,” “Bullets with Sense,” “When Iron Turns to Gold,” “Bull Hunter Feels His Oats,” “Outlaws All,” “The Wolf Strain,” “Bull Hunter’s Romance,” “The Gauntlet,” “Riding into Peril,” “Sheriff Larrabee’s Prisoner,” “The Man Who Followed,” and “The Gift.”

With the novels averaging 60,000 words (The Seventh Man is 77,000) and the novellas averaging 25,000 words, the estimate of Faust’s published output for this year alone is 915,000 words. And the next year he would get much busier.