Saturday, May 8, 2021

"Slade" by Arnold Hano (1956)

There’s nothing heroic or romantic about Arnold Hano’s westerns. The frontier is a dark and violent landscape that doesn’t offer redemption, rebirth, or hope. In Hano’s books, the barren landscapes reveal the naked awfulness of its people. These qualities are on full display in Slade and Manhunter, two of Hano’s grim, gut-punch westerns recently reissued by Stark House Press. These great books embody why Hano deserves the title “Master of the Western Noir,” which is the name of Paul Bishop’s terrific essay-interview with the author, which is also included in the new volume.

Slade was originally published in 1956 under the name “Ad Gordon” by Lion Books, where Hano was also the editor. Hano doesn’t handle his characters with kid gloves—he puts them through hell, over and over again. Slade begins with him knocking the titular character off his high horse, and what a fall he takes. Like Icarus before him, Slade flew too close to the sun and paid for his hubris. Here, the gambler bet everything he had—including his saloon—and lost it. With only his horse, his hat, and a sock with $500 he tries to leave town, but after he’s jumped and beaten unconscious he loses even the sock. “Dilt drove both his fists to the back of Slade’s neck and kicked himself loose. Yet somehow he got up again. Finally, the wild red washed through him and turned gray and the last thing he remembered was Dilt saying hoarsely, ‘Fall, you son of a bitch, fall.’”

Broke, Slade heads to Cowpoke, New Mexico, to look his up old friend Crispin, in hopes of starting over. But Slade doesn’t even get that chance. He rides straight into a land war over territory that’s about to become a whole lot more valuable because of the coming railroad. Crispin is missing, presumed to be murdered by a trio of greedy men. There’s Big Thomas, a landowner who won’t stop until he has all the property in the area, but who is already deep in debt to the bank. Then there’s Sheriff Wilkinson, a corrupt lawman who takes out his Napoleonic complex by pushing everyone around him, and who lusts after Crispin’s sister. And then there’s Abbott, the bank owner who’s plans on using Big Thomas to push the homesteaders off their land and then disposing of him like the others.

Other writers might have used this set-up to position Slade a savior of the homesteaders. But not Hano. Nobody’s motivations are pure and righteous. None of the other homesteaders want to defend their homes and are ready to sell. Crispin’s sister, May, is a hard woman that knows how to survive in a hard land, but even she’s too hardboiled for Slade (who years before harbored a crush on her which has long since faded). May’s husband, Hogue, is a coward who fears he’ll be killed next. And Slade’s primary motivation is that he has only one silver dollar in his belt buckle—and he’s gonna need more than that to move on.

At its blackened heart, Slade is about greed. In the book’s most symbolic moment, a character is even lynched by their money belt. In its portrayal of ruthless, selfish, power-hungry characters recalls W.R. Burnett and Paul Cain. Hano has said that his westerns were influenced by Jim Thompson, and in Slade one can see Thompson’s influence in the long pestilent trail of nastiness that runs through whole book. 

In an ironic ending, Hano doesn’t have his Slade ride into the sunset, and instead has him ride into a blazing sun—deeper into the inferno. He may be smiling, but the optimism seems unwarranted and foolhardy. Knowing Hano, nothing but more trouble awaits Slade at the end of the trail.

A stunning achievement, Slade deserves to be known as classic of the noir western subgenre. Thank you to Stark House Press for bringing this back to bookshelves. Manhunter review to follow shortly…

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