09 August 2011

Book Review: Two Sixes

Two Sixes (1999)
By Frederick Faust writing as Max Brand

The career of the pen name “Max Brand” experienced a resurgence in the mid-1990s. The growth of Popular Culture Studies during the decade meant that many authors dismissed before because they wrote genre novels for the masses now emerged as writers of major value. The “Max Brand” disguise came off—partially, as the name still exists as a trademark and on the book covers—and critics began to look at the man beneath, Frederick Faust, and his remarkable—and gargantuan—body of popular literature.

A consequence of the renewed interest in Faust was that many of his novellas started to get into print. Most of the work published before under the Max Brand name was from his book-length serials. But Faust wrote a voluminous number of novellas between 20,000 and 40,000 words. In 1923, the year of Dan Barry’s Daughter and the two of the stories collected in the 1999 anthology Two Sixes, he published sixteen novellas, or “short novels” as the pulps advertised them.

The new line of Max Brand books that appeared in the mid-1990s gathered many of these novellas into collections. A volume usually contains three, and the hardcover editions from the Circle V subtitled them “A Western Trilogy.” The majority of these novellas have never been printed before in book form, meaning that forty years after his death, Frederick Faust was putting out never-before published books at a steady rate of about three a year.

Two Sixes, like many of these “Western Trilogy” books, contains three unrelated novellas: “Winking Lights,” “The Best Bandit,” and the title piece. The first and last come from 1923, and the middle from 1931. None appeared under the Max Brand byline on first publication, using instead three other of Faust’s phalanx of pennames: John Frederick, David Manning, and George Owen Baxter.

“Winking Lights” was first published in Western Story Magazine (6 January 1923) under the John Frederick pseudonym. It was Faust’s first published story for the year. His working title was “Two-Speed Conifrey,” and the 1999 introduction suggests that its main character is an earlier version of Faust’s popular confidence man “Speedy,” who debuted in Western Story in 1932 in the serial “Tramp Magic,” later printed in book form as Speedy (1955). I can’t make a judgment on the link between Two-Speed Conifrey and Speedy, since I have yet to read any of the Speedy stories. This is the constant difficulty in assessing Frederick Faust: there is simply too much of his writing for critics to get a good grasp on it. I’ve read Faust for more than fifteen years now, and I’ve probably covered about 5% of his output—and that’s a liberal estimate.

On to “Winking Lights.” I’ll get this out of the way first: the winking lights refer to the light coming from an electric torch—i.e. a flashlight. “What is a flashlight doing in frontier USA?” you ask. This is not an isolated incident, as a “pocket electric torch” appears in Dan Barry’s Daughter. A character in “Winking Lights” even states that it’s the twentieth century, but with the exception of the flashlight, it feels like the nineteenth century. This was a convention of Westerns fiction in the ‘teens and ‘20s, writing about the “Old West” as if part of it still existed in some distant, hidden place in the West. Readers accepted the occasional intrusion of a car or a telephone without losing the feel of a lawless frontier. Even the Roy Rogers films of the next decade had a “contemporary” Old West. By the mid-twenties, Western writers dropped the illusion that the horse-driven and bandit-ridden Wild West still existed anywhere aside from movies and and the page.

Two-Speed Conifrey, who got his nickname because he either moves “all-fired slow” or “dead stop,” is riding his horse Simon toward the ranch to get it prepared for the other cowpunchers when they come in for the evening. But Conifrey wades into a fight with a stranger on a black horse, which escalates from small insults into a fisticuff, and culminates in Conifrey shooting the man in the arm. Conifrey’s employer, tired of seeing the man getting into fights and having to bail him out of them, lets him go.

In the evening, the appearance of a blinking light, exactly like the flashlight that the stranger showed him, sets Conifrey out to investigate. He has started to wonder what exactly the stranger on the black horse was waiting for.

There’s a poetic, rhythmic description of why Two-Speed Conifrey chooses to move so leisurely: “He liked to see the desert float around him slowly, slowly. He liked to see the hills approach with dignity and retire behind him at a smoothley regulated gait. He liked to hear the soft and steady crunching of the hoofs in sand or gravel.” It is prose like this that always impresses me in Faust’s fiction; the attention to poetic beats is powerful, and it creates a moment within the story where the reader is allowed to take a breath and savor the environment.

Conifrey discovers a magnificent, sprawling ranch. The owner, John Lagrange, agrees to put Conifrey up for the night, but his reluctance triggers Conifrey’s suspicions.

Soon, readers find out what is happening: the hero has wandered into a Romeo and Juliet-inspired story of lovers divided by a feud between families. John Lagrange wants revenge against Richard Mason, whose father killed Lagrange’s brother. Lagrange’s niece and adopted daughter Beatrice (Faust throwing some Dante into the mix) is in love with Mason, however. Conifery learns all this from overheard conversations in the ranch after he escapes from getting imprisoned in his room. Lagrange has capture Richard Mason and plans to have his men kill him in the morning. Beatrice’s plot to signal help with her flashlight was spoiled because Conifrey knocked out the man who was supposed to receive the signal. Conifrey joins with Beatrice to help rescue Mason from the huge Lagrange ranch.

“Winking Lights” has strong action with an espionage flavor; the Lagrange ranch feels like an enemy compound, and Faust gives it an aura of outrageousness. But the story has its emotional center outside of its protagonist. The main drama occurs in long conversations between Lagrange and Beatrice, and much of it has them feeding each other exposition. The finale wraps up the story in a hurry, making it seem that Faust realized he might go too long and had to close shop fast. “Winking Lights” is a minor work that has a few flashes of brilliance in its writing and some of its characters, but not much else to recommend it. Faust at his stunning average.

The next piece, “The Best Bandit,” makes up the for the weakness of “Winking Lights” with a superb piece of suspense and misdirection that makes for a surprising tale, packed with the joy of watching “turnabout as fair play.”

This novella first appeared in the 5 March 1932 issue of Western Story Magazine, as by David Manning. Now we are definitely in the historical Old West, because the story opens with the information that it takes place “during the days of the Chisholm Trail.” The setting is the strange town of Greensville, which hovers between the U.S. and Mexico, defiantly belonging to neither. The town has a furious independent spirit and has attracted many criminals who find it a haven.

Into Greensville rides the naïve Randal “Rancie” Dale, who imagines he can leap into the cattle business and make a fortune if he can find the right man in town to act as his foreman. He picks up Jeems Loring on a recommendation (he ask for “the best man in Greensville,” which the hotel owner interprets in an interesting way). Loring hires on twelve more thieves with the intention of fleecing Dale by selling stolen cattle and lifting the fat wad of bills from the tender-foot, whom Loring says is “so green that a forest fire wouldn’t even singe his top branches.”

Once in Mexican territory, another bandit comes on the scene to join Loring’s scheme to cheat Randal Dale. José Oñate gets an introduction of the sort that Faust seemed able to write without a second thought:
Not until then did the chief Cattle Thief, José Oñate, appear upon the scene. He was a man or mark. He could not have walked upon the stage of this world unnoticed even as a slave. In a far land, his conversation would have changed the minds of cannibals. His wisdom always would have unlocked the heart of the sternest tyrant, and his hands, a little later, would surely have opened the seven sealed doors of his treasure chambers. Women could not resist his wiles. Men could not resist his weapons.
However, the gathering vultures around Randal Dale may have misjudged the man. It is Maruja Flandes, the beautiful daughter of an innkeeper where the band stays for the night, who begins to guess that there is more to the young man than anyone knows, and that cheating is a two-way street.

“Best Bandit” has only a few passages of action, but it contains constant drama with its colorful cast and the clever way Faust begins to change the focus from the bandits to their supposed mark. The writing balances character POVs so well that it disguises how difficult writing this sort of layered character piece actually is.

The title novella returns us to the early 1920s. “Two Sixes” appeared in the 17 March 1923 issue of Western Story Magazine under the George Owen Baxter name, the second most common of Faust’s pseudonyms. This paperback publication is the first reprint of the story since its magazine appearance. Considering how powerful it is, it’s unfortunate it hid from the public for so long.

The spine of the story is outright autobiography. A man in the East hears that his fiancée in the West is heading toward another man, so the hero hops a train to rush out to win back the great love of his life. This is exactly what Frederick Faust did in 1916 to get Dorothy Schillig in Berkeley to marry him, and it is the same thing that the main character in “Two Sixes,” gambler Jack Maynard, does when he learns that Sandy Lorrimer is trying to romance Maynard’s love, Louise Martin. Faust’s real-life version involved far less shooting and crooked gambling schemes, but anyone familiar the author’s life will know what was on his mind as he typed this novella. This punctures the notion, which the author himself spread, that he didn’t care about his popular fiction at all.

“Two Sixes” is the highlight of this trio of novellas. It puts a morally ambiguous character at the front as the default hero, and then makes the reader start to hate him. Jack Maynard hatches a plan to get Sandy Lorrimer away from his girl that uses another gambler, who is chasing Maynard because he refused to let him win back the money he lost from him. Maynard manipulates them toward a fight. The way Maynard plans it, one will kill the other, and the victor will have to flee the law. Either way, Maynard will end up with the girl.

The story reaches a white-knuckle conclusion in a chase through waterless rocks under the relentless sun. Maynard finds himself at a crossroads where he can at last make the right choice—but at a great cost. Faust ends the story with a major suspense sequence (where the title at last makes senses) followed by a bleak but cathartic conclusion. Once again, Faust takes classical tragedy and applies it the Western setting, creating an unforgettable piece genre fiction.

“Winking Lights” makes for a weak opening, although like all Faust stories, there are wonderful parts to it that still make it worth reading. The other two novellas show the writer in top form, especially the surprising immoral hero of “Two Sixes” and his chosen fate at the conclusion. Faust shows what a daring writer he was within a genre often thought to be nothing but formula.