IN THE LITERARY TRADITION OF CORMAC MCCARTHY'S AND LARRY MCMURTRY'S HISTORICAL WESTERNS, SHAVETAIL TRACES THE BRUTAL COMING-OF-AGE OF A BOY SOLDIER STATIONED AT A REMOTE U.S. ARMY OUTPOST AND A YOUNG WOMAN'S TERRIFYING PASSAGE ACROSS THE AMERICAN FRONTIER.
Set in 1871 in the unforgiving wasteland of the Arizona Territory, Shavetail is the story of Private Ned Thorne, a seventeen-year-old boy from Connecticut who has lied about his age to join the Army. On the run from a shameful past, Ned is desperate to prove his worth -- to his superiors, to his family, and most of all, to himself. Young and troubled, Ned is as green and stubborn as a "shavetail," the soldiers' term for a dangerous, untrained mule.
To endure in this world, Ned must not only follow the orders of the camp's captain, Robert Franklin,but also submit to the cruel manipulations of Obediah Brickner, the camp's mule driver. Both Franklin and Brickner have been damaged by their long military service, both consider themselves able to survive the dangers of the desert -- floods, scorpions, snakes, and Indians -- and both imperil Ned.
Yet there are other characters, all richly drawn, who also confront Ned: half-wit soldiers, embattled Indians hidden in cliffs, a devious and philosophical peddler, and the fleshy whores who materialize in the desert as soon as the paymaster has left camp and dance with drunken soldiers around a fire late into the night.
After a band of Apaches attack a nearby ranch, killing two men and kidnapping a young woman, Ned's lieutenant -- a man seeking atonement for his own mistakes -- leads Ned and the rest of his patrol on a near-suicidal mission through rugged mountains and into Mexico in hopes of saving the woman's life. It is unlikely any can survive this folly, and those who do will be changed forever.
Meticulously researched and vividly told, Shavetail renders a time when the United States was still an expanding empire, its western edge bloody with the deaths of soldiers, settlers, and Indians. In language both spare and brilliant, Cobb brings readers this lost American landscape, untouched by highways or electricity and without the comforts of civilization.
Shavetail also marks the return of a great American literary voice. Cobb's first and only other novel, Crazy Heart, was published in 1987 to great acclaim and was edited by the legendary editor Ted Solotaroff. Cobb is also a former student of Donald Barthelme, who described Crazy Heart as "a bitter, witty psychological profile of genius."
Brutal and deft, laced with both violence and desire, Shavetail plunges into the deepest human urges even as it marks the ground where men either survive or perish.
Set in 1871 Arizona, the second novel from Cobb (Crazy Heart) is a thoughtful western that is more character-driven adventure tale than plot-driven novel. Connecticut runaway Ned Thorne, 17, joins the cavalry and lands at Camp Grant, a nascent outpost along the edge of Arizona's Chiricahua mountains. Capt. Robert Franklin thinks his command of Camp Grant punitive duty for an earlier disastrous campaign; the discovery of a pillaged farmhouse and the kidnapping of a woman by renegade Apaches provide an opportunity for Franklin to redeem his honor. Using the actual Camp Grant massacre as a frame for the story, Cobb produces some marvelous, richly described scenes, and he does a fair job with period detail (though punctilious western fans will find some anachronisms). Setting and plot, however, are of secondary importance to the deeper developing revelations of the three main characters-the third being Lt. Anthony Austin, who leads a harrowing chase through the mountains. Their introspective analyses go a long way, but there's a disjointed sense to the whole, which teeters between straight realism and Cormac McCarthy-style flights of mysticism. The real eventually wins, and the results are less than satisfying. (Feb.) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 11, 2008
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Excerpt from Shavetail by Thomas Cobb
Private Ned Thorne
Under the feathery branches of a mesquite tree twenty feet in diameter, among the litter of the tree -- small oval leaves, rotting beans, bits of cholla dragged by pack rats trying to build refuge -- lay a diamondback rattlesnake, thick as a grown man's forearm, coiled in folds, suspended in a state neither asleep nor awake.
Some thirty yards away, the boy, having conceded the only shelter for hundreds of yards to the snake, tried to cram his body into the makeshift shade of a crate stenciled with "Property of the United States Army. Fragile." The crate was delicately balanced on a trunk, similarly stenciled. The first had been placed so that half its length extended into the air, creating a scant few feet of shade on the ground underneath.
The boy got up and shifted the crate. The day was moving into afternoon, and the angle of the sun was giving him the chance of wider patches of shade. It was not yet fully hot, perhaps ninety degrees, not much more, but the sun was unrelenting, and he felt his skin burn. He had spent the last four hours alone here, with no water and only the boxes for shade. He was considering going back to drive the snake from under the tree, but he was afraid.
Around him he saw nothing but brush, grass, and tall stalks of yucca. In any direction he looked, there were distant peaks of mountains, but for miles around him, there was nothing more than the repetition of what was right here.
He was seventeen, had been seventeen for two months. Handsome and thin, though not frail, he looked older, in part due to a full but sparse beard that he had grown for the express purpose of looking so. Without it his delicate features and perpetual scowl gave him away for the boy he really was. He was lately of Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where he had done his training, learning the craft of weather observation, becoming proficient in horsemanship, and, much to his own surprise, proving himself a superior marksman. Before that he had been in Baltimore, where he'd enlisted after fleeing his home in Hartford, Connecticut, in the dark of night.
Just two days earlier he had arrived in Tucson, the Arizona Territory, by stage from San Francisco. Tucson was the ugliest town he had ever seen in his life. It looked as if it had been constructed by an enormous, addled child who'd simply thrown mud on the ground. He had nearly missed boarding the stage and had to ride the entire trip backward, coming into his future just as his father had always told him he would, backside first.
The stage had dropped him here, which, he now understood, was nowhere. A set of wagon ruts moved roughly south by southwest. On these, the driver had promised, an escort from Camp Bowie would be by to pick him up. That had been long ago. Hours. He was vaguely curious about the hour, though knowing the time would have made the wait and boredom intolerable. He curled up into a tighter ball under the shade of the trunk and slept.
He was awakened by the snort and stamp of mules. Later, he realized he had been dreaming the sound of tack and the creaking of a wagon for some time.
"You Thorne? New meat for D Company?"
He scrambled out of his barely constructed shelter. "Water. I'm dying."
A canteen came flying over the heads of the mules. Ned misjudged it, let it fall, and had to scramble on hands and knees in the burning dirt.
"No. Probably you ain't. When you still know how awful you feel, you ain't even close to dead yet. You go slow on that water. I don't need to be driving you back and you got the squirts all the time. My life ain't that much joy as it is."
Ned forced himself to pull the canteen from his lips. He hoisted it and poured some of the rest over the top of his head. "Private Ned Thorne," he said, saluting in a perfunctory manner. "D Company, Camp Bowie."
"Brickner. D Company, all right. But not Bowie. We're at Ramsey now. And don't salute. I ain't no officer. I'm a corporal and a human being same as you." Brickner was a big man, round in the face. His hat was a battered straw that seemed to come nearly to his eyes, which were only slits against the sun. His mouth was set in an ironic half-smile in the middle of a black beard going heavily to gray.
"What? Where? Where's Ramsey?"
"Nowhere. Or next door to it. Where's the nails?"
"They supposed to be sending nails with you. You were going to pick them up in Camp Lowell. Didn't you do that?"
"I didn't go to Camp Lowell."
"You come through Tucson, didn't you?"
"I did. But I didn't go to Camp Lowell. I stayed in a hotel."
"Hotel? You stayed in a damned hotel? Hotels is for rich bastards, fine ladies, whores, and thieves. Which of those is you?"
"I wanted a bed."
"And we're wanting nails, which you didn't get. What the hell good are you? And what's all that over there?" He nodded toward the crates.
"Weather. Rain. Snow. Wind. Weather."
Brickner looked around at the depth of blue in the sky. "Weather. Goddamn. Ain't none here."