I've been listening to a lot of latter-day Johnny Cash lately. And while the sentiment might get me strung up in some purist circles, I believe the American Recordings sessions represent the absolute apex of Cash's considerable career.
That's not meant as a slight against anything Cash recorded in his earlier days. Especially not At Folsom Prison.
Cash was just an artist who kept aging into his voice well into his late sixties, a man who sounded better the more his voice took on that gravelly timbre. His musical style also benefitted from the raw, stripped-down style of the American Recordings. Some of the best tracks on the American releases were just Cash and his acoustic guitar.
Personally, I'm glad they were the final releases of his career. They're the most fitting swan song I can think of for the Man in Black.
And while Cash's cover of "Hurt" gets most of the attention, with songwriter Trent Reznor famously quoted as saying "that song isn't mine anymore," the fact is Cash made a habit of doing flat-out amazing covers during this stage in his career. And for my money, most of them blow the originals out of the water. His versions of U2's "One," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" are just a handful of examples.
But my favorite of all the American Recordings—original or cover—is Cash's rendition of Marty Robbins' classic country ballad, "Big Iron." If you've never had the pleasure, I strongly urge you to take a few minutes to give a listen.
Anyway, this recent Johnny Cash kick probably had something to do with me grabbing John Benteen's Alaska Steel off the TBR pile on my way to the VA clinic a couple of weeks ago. I had a long day ahead, with several hours to kill between appointments, so I wanted some good, old-fashioned escapism.
It was a good choice.
In case you've never heard of Benteen, a brief primer: Benteen was an early pseudonym for novelist Ben Haas. And while he'd later go on to great literary acclaim with books like The Chandler Heritage, The House of Christina, and Daisy Canfield, much of his early work was in the pulp western genre.
The Benteen name was the one Haas used when writing the Fargo series, about professional soldier of fortune Neal Fargo. Taking place in the early 1900s, the Fargo series sees its hero traveling around the world, taking dangerous jobs for money. A rough wanderer with a talent for fighting, Fargo has been described by fans of the series as "Conan with a shotgun." And that's pretty damn accurate.
Alaska Steel is #3 in the series, but like all good pulp or adventure fiction, you can read them in any order. Here's the tagline:
"Fargo went north to find a beautiful woman's husband—and to make sure he was dead!"
Folks, that is how you grab a potential reader's attention!
The book opens in 1914, with Fargo between jobs. He's got a temp gig as an actor in Hollywood, mean-mugging the camera and falling over after fake gun battles. But as good as the money is, it's got him feeling hollow. He's itching to get on the move and into the wider world again. He craves the action of a real life-or-death fight. He's contemplating heading south, where the Mexican Revolution is heating up, when a job lands in his lap courtesy of movie star Jane Deering.
Deering tells Fargo that she recently heard from a lawyer representing her estranged in-laws. Apparently, her husband's dirt-poor parents struck oil on their land, shortly before dying in a car accident, and her husband now stands to inherit a fortune. The problem, Deering says, is that she hasn't seen her husband in more than five years, not since he ran out on her to seek his own fortune in the Yukon.
Her proposition is simple: she wants Fargo go to Circle, Alaska, where he was last heard from. It's worth a lot of money if Fargo can find proof that he's still alive. But Deering promises him an even bigger cut if he can prove her husband is dead.
The rest of the book follows Fargo and Deering as they trek up to Circle, seeking answers to the whereabouts of her husband. The man's name triggers a murderous rage in some quarters, and Fargo has to fight for his life more than once. Whatever happened in Circle, no one is willing to talk about it. It soon becomes clear there was more to Deering's missing husband than Fargo suspected.
The climax is the kind of explosive action Haas excels at writing. No high noon shootouts here. We get an all-out war in the streets of Circle, an over-the-top, balls-to-the-wall finale of gunfire and grade-A violence. There is a final, mano-a-mano moment between Fargo and the villain. But saying much more would spoil the ending.
And I highly encourage any fans of action, adventure, and good old fashioned shoot-em-ups to track it down and experience it for themselves.
Getting to the end of Alaska Steel, I realized how refreshing it was to read an unashamedly masculine story that didn't wink and nod at the audience for a change. Fargo is a man's man. He's only interested in fighting, drinking, and women, and he gets down to business with all three. He's as tough, as cool, and as professional as they come.
He's the kind of hero facing the kind of problems that are played for laughs in most quarters these days. Honestly, the tagline for Alaska Steel sounds almost like something that the Man Plots Twitter bot could have come up with.
With its shirtless Ernest Hemingway avatar and its cheeky offer of availability for script rewrites, Man Plots randomly drops pulp fiction buzzwords into an "elevator pitch" sentence, generating 3—4 action story ideas per day.
Folks, this Twitter account is a gold mine.
And while the whole thing is meant to as a joke, the sad fact is that at least half the ideas it spits out sound better than the neutered, anemic shit Hollywood is passing off as action these days. I'd take any of those plots—and their stoic, hard-bitten heroes—over the mainstream's idea of a "masculine" protagonist any day of the week.
There's an interesting exchange in the first chapter of Alaska Steel. One of Haas' side characters, movie star Roy Hughes, is talking to the movie's director. The director has just expressed incredulous rage over Fargo turning down the promise of a big studio contract to go join the Mexican Revolution:
"Don't you see?" Hughes tipped back the big sombrero. "He's not like the rest of us. We're phonies. And phony things don't satisfy him." There was envy in his expressive eyes. "If I was man enough, I'd trade places with him in a minute."
Neal Fargo inhabits a changing world. The wild places are becoming civilized, and the real struggles for survival are being replaced with phony copies, meant to entertain softer men than him. But Fargo himself is still a man of action. And he actively seeks out the places where his action will have meaning.
To a modern reader in an increasingly sedentary and regulated world, there's something powerful about that idea.
Understanding that idea isn't—and never has been—a joke is what separated the great pulp and men's adventure writers from the winking and sneering postmodern takes we get now. It's what gives their work the same timeless quality as Johnny Cash's soulful rendition of "Big Iron."
In a letter to his son Joel, Ben Haas said the following about writing a pulp western: "All Westerns are fairy stories and outlets for impotent people. The villain must be larger than life; the hero larger than the villain. These are dream-fulfillment books."
Haas knew the reader was reaching for a temporary escape. He created characters like Fargo to give it to them without any hint of holier-than-thou irony, smirking, or subversion.
Haas believed in the Man Plot, back when the Man Plot wasn't a punchline.
Some of us—myself included—still do.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.