What I’m Reading: Robber’s Roost by Zane Grey

Mom gave me a pile of picks from her library about a year ago, including Zane Grey’s Robber’s Roost.

Anyways, I read it, and this is a review.

Robber’s Roost is the story of Jim Wall, Wyoming outlaw, come to Utah in search of… something different, I guess. I mean, it’s clear he couldn’t go back to Wyoming, but we’re given pretty little indication why he chose freaking Utah. Guess he didn’t need one. He just up and rode west.

He meets up there with Hank Hays, a robber and a rustler, and joins up when Hank robs a greedy Mormon to pay the ferry boy properly. This establishes Hank in a Robin Hood light that he fails to live up to ever after.

Hank and his pards are working for Herrick, an Englishman, on Star Ranch. We’re introduced to the robber gang, one character at a time. All of them have a fairly good presence and stick out enough to be told apart from one another, but due to sharing a name with an influential actor of our time, one of the robbers gained an outsize presence in my mind’s silver screen. (His name’s Jeff Bridges)

“This comparison will not stand, man.”

This unfortunate coincidence retrogressed my understanding of Jim Wall from a character in his own right, to basically Cowboy John Goodman. Hank Hays became The Jesus. And so began A Very Lebowski Reading of Robber’s Roost.

So The Jesus and his robber gang rustle Herrick’s cattle. For the money. All goes well until Herrick’s sister, Helen, shows up on this ranch. The Jesus and Cowboy John Goodman both fall for her, and Cowboy John Goodman and Helen fall into a very Tsundere love affair. Finally, The Jesus, ill-content to just rustle cattle, orders his men off the ranch, Cowboy John Goodman with them. The Jesus then burgles Herrick’s house, beats up Herrick, and kidnaps Helen. Because The Jesus has an unholy lust for Helen-flesh.

This sets Cowboy John Goodman against The Jesus, because he also wants the blonde, violet-eyed Englishwoman. But Cowboy John Goodman bides his time, for fear that sudden action might turn the robber gang’s hand against him if he killed their boss in cold blood.

There’s another group of desperadoes working on Herrick’s ranch though, and their boss is a rustler by the name of Heeseman. As The Jesus and Cowboy John Goodman ride to their hideout at Robber’s Roost, they’re pursued hotly by Heeseman’s gang.

…Or should I say Das Heeseman.

“Give us the money and the girl, The Jesus!”

The Jesus and his gang outride them, and after a horseback gunfight, escape to Robber’s Roost, where Cowboy John Goodman works slowly, inevitably, prudently, to turn the minds of The Jesus’s men against him. After weeks of fomenting, it finally works. The Jesus’s men turn, hogtying him.

“This is what happens when you kidnap an Englishwoman from her ranch!”

Just when it looks like things’ll resolve peacefully, Heeseman’s Riders on the Nihilist Range ride into Robber’s Roost. The gun battle leaves only Helen and Cowboy John Goodman alive. Sadly, in this gun battle, Jeff Bridges is the first to die. Probably too dude-like to handle a real fight.

So the two ride onto the dusty draws, where they’re caught in a rainstorm. After the rainstorm and flash floods pass, they make a valley, camp with some Mormons, and return to Star Ranch, where Helen convinces the conflicted and damaged Westerner to stay with her, to protect her ladyhood. Or use it. I’m sorry, the story’s really unclear which.

So what’s bad? The Eye Dialect. The way Herrick constantly exclaims, “By Jove!” to remind you that he’s British. The way characters in this film ejaculate in one scene’s conversation more often than the entire cast of Logjammin’ do in the whole movie.

It’s painfully obvious that this story comes from a different time. A time before competing media outlets forced writers to step up their game. The best description for this novel’s prose is indulgent. It’s serviceable for reading, despite it’s old-timey-ness, but it just takes too damn long to make its point. It’s loaded with over-extended descriptions of gorgeous landscapes. In description, Mr. Grey uses four paragraphs to tell what one could have. A full third of the novel reads like a travelogue. Maybe this was cool, back in the ’30s. Now, if we want to know what the mesas and ranges of Utah look like, we can Google that shit.

Of course, this does mean that when you wake up from your drowsing to discover the story’s moved to action, the subsequent compression amplifies the action’s effect. I don’t think it’s worth it though. Were I Zane Grey’s advisor, editing with a modern audience in mind, I’d have trimmed it from the rotund 295 pages I read, to 200 at most.

The romantic interplay between Cowboy John Goodman and Helen Herrick lacks clear motivation on the gunman’s side. To elaborate, Cowboy John Goodman has no clear reason for why he resists falling in love with her, the subject of at least 50 pages of tortured prose. Is it the difference in their class? I never learned. Did he have a woman who did him wrong before? No clue. The only thing evident from his whining is that he wishes he could quit her, for reasons unknown.

What’s good? The gunplay. The horses. The falling out of friends over a woman. Pretty much any interplay that involves only men. When Zane Grey writes action, he’s in his element. His landscape descriptions are lush, but sometimes overwrought. I’m more concerned with what humans’re doing in that gorgeous backdrop, Zane.

All in all, it’s a good book, but one I’d not suggest to most modern readers. The prose’s indulgence is a big turnoff, although I do love Lovecraft and Robert Jordan, both great believers in prose bloat. So that’s not enough in itself. This is:

Raise your hand if you’re an unironic Western fan.

Now put it down if your experience with Westerns is solely based on THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.

Now put it down if you’ve never read a Western novel.

Now pick up this novel if that exercise shamed you somethin’ awful.

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