Book Review Of The Time It Never Rained
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/2/15
In looking over literature related to Texas, one naturally has to deal with the genre of western novels. With roots in the nickel and dime cowboy novels of the late 19th Century, the form only crystallized into something resembling literature with the early 20th Century release of Owen Wister’s classic and great novel, The Virginian. This book held such a power over the medium that many of its tale’s characters and tropes became staples of the genre it birth, with many lesser writers and tales running much of it into clichés, even as the original book stood tall against the works of a Zane Grey, Max Brand, Louis L’Amour and on through more modern Western writers whose works broke the genre ghetto and came to be considered literature first- think Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy (for good or ill).
But, most western novels don’t break the ghetto, even if the writer is associated with the genre, but writes a book that is NOT a western. One such writer is the much lauded Elmer Kelton, whose name and work I first came across a few years back, when my wife and I visited the town of San Angelo, Texas, where Kelton is revered. While a demigod there, during his lifetime (1926-2009), he was little known outside the western genre, despite being acclaimed the greatest western writer of all time by the Western Writers Of America association. His most acclaimed work is the 1973 novel, The Time It Never Rained, which is NOT a western. Yes, it’s set in West Texas, but a western is set during the time before the frontier was closed. This is a novel about ranchers and their personal lives, interactions with Mexicans and Chicanos, as well as the economic hardships of life during a famed drought that lasted from 1950-57, the approximate time the book’s main events are set in.
This book has far more in common with the social realism books of John Steinbeck or John Dos Passos than it does with classic westerns. And, despite it being championed by conservative political organizations as an exemplar of Right Wing, anti-government rhetoric, the book clearly is NOT that. Yes, it’s main character is Rightist leaning (in the loony libertarian sense), but the authorial voice of Kelton, or the omniscient speaker he employs, is clearly moderate to liberal in his social views, and I will clearly demonstrate that in this review and essay.
The book is often cited as Kelton’s best work, but even his champions usually don’t claim him a great prose stylist, but here is the Prologue to the book, one often cited in reviews, and with good cause:
It crept up out of Mexico, touching first along the brackish Pecos and spreading then in all directions, a cancerous blight burning a scar upon the land.
Just another dry spell, men said at first. Ranchers watched waterholes recede to brown puddles of mud that their livestock would not touch. They watched the rank weeds shrivel as the west wind relentlessly sought them out and smothered them with its hot breath. They watched the grass slowly lose its green, then curl and fire up like dying cornstalks.
Farmers watched their cotton make an early bloom in its stunted top, produce a few half-hearted bolls and then wither.
Men grumbled, but you learned to live with the dry spells if you stayed in West Texas; there were more dry spells than wet ones. No one expected another drouth like that of ‘33. And the really big dries like 1918 came once in a lifetime.
Why worry? They said. It would rain this fall. It always had.
But it didn’t. And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again.
Note how we get a solid attempt at poesy, then the rather blunt second paragraph of what actually happened, to contrast it against the carcinogenic metaphor. The rest of the smaller paragraphs then trail off like a Greek chorus of ever fading banalities set to prop up the seeming moral of the tale- to persevere.
In this manner, Kelton employs modern techniques (even with a bit of Postmodern irony) against images that are as salt of the earth as can be.
Let’s move on to the novel proper, and the opening to Chapter 1 (of 20 chapters), from pages 3-7, in the paperback version I read:
Rio Seco was too small to afford a professional manager for its one-room Chamber of Commerce. The part-time volunteer, elected because no one else wanted the job, made his living selling an independent brand of gasoline two cents under the majors though he bought it from the same tank truck that serviced half the stations in town. A man of wit, some people thought, he had erected a big red-and-white sign on the highway at the city limits:
WELCOME TO RIO SECO
HOME OF 3,000 FRIENDLY PEOPLE—
AND THREE OLD CRANKS!
Farther inside the city limits, half-hidden between a Ford billboard and one for Pepsi-Cola, he had placed another sign:
THIS IS GOD’S COUNTRY
DON’T DRIVE THROUGH IT LIKE HELL
Here we see Kelton displaying humor, but one that can readily be believed to be based in reality. I’ve been in Texas a dozen years, now, and many small towns the size of the fictive Rio Seco, have such signs, or attractions such as the famed Junkasaurus Wrecks of Bertram, Texas, which featured a faux dinosaur skeleton made of metal and excess car parts. Signs like that litter these towns, especially with references to God and morality. Hence, we are immediately thrust into a realistic setting of humor and details that, even were a reader ignorant of the reality of such, has the benefit of human reality- one can feel that a place like this might exist.
This cattle, sheep, and farming town was much the same as fifty others dotted along the interminable east-west highways which speed traffic across the great monotonous stretches of western Texas ranch country. To an impatient motorist hunting a cooler place to light before dark, these dusty little towns are all cut from the same tiresome pattern and, despite the signboard, a long way from heaven.
More great description, as 90% of all Texas towns are platted to have a town square with the county courthouse or town hall in the middle, and the main town business squared about it. Note, too, how Kelton uses the words light and dark in the same sentence, but not as opposites, as ‘light’ is used as a verb, as in to alight. This demonstrates Kelton has a solid understanding that most clichés need subversion.
Like most of them, Rio Seco had old roots. It had been born out of necessity, a trading place for sprawling cow outfits, for scattered sheep camps and industrious German dryland farmers who had come west with their wagons, their plows, and a compulsive will to build something. The town long ago had made its growth and found its natural level. Now it held steady, gaining no ground but losing none. Oil companies had come and punched their holes and found them dry. They had gone again, leaving dreams of quick riches to drift away on the arid wind like the cotton-white clouds that promised rain and failed to deliver.
A nice, concise history follows up the founding of the town.
Life still depended on two fundamentals: crops planted by the hand of man and grass planted by the hand of God.
Give us rain, they said at Rio Seco, and it makes no difference who is in the White House.
This sort of pragmatism is at the crux of the novel, which sees its main character woefully out of touch with the rest of the town, and who, inadvertently, ends up bringing misery to most of the town, as well as himself. That we get, in this old rancher, whose introduction is coming, such an ambiguous portrait, sets him up as an odd sort of antihero, in that everything he does fails: he’s not a particularly smart nor nice individual, not a good rancher nor businessman, nor a particularly good nor caring husband nor father, as well as a closet racist, but he is a character whom we do end up rooting for, by novel’s end. He is an almost quintessentially gray character, in the best sense of the term
If one thing set the town apart, it was probably the trees--pale-green mesquites and massive, gnarled live oaks, rustling cottonwoods and shady pecans, watered by a hundred windmills whose towers stood tall above a timid skyline. Modern municipal mains provided purer water for drinking and cooking, but most of the older generation clung to wells for yards and gardens and trees. For a man who has often turned his face to the hot breath of drouth, the sight of a windmill tower--its big steel fan clanking patiently and pumping up water clear and cool--somehow reaches deep and touches something in his soul.
This last sentence will resonate with many readers, even those centuries from now, when terraforming other planets, even if it could have been phrased a little less tritely. We are sacks of water, essentially.
The town had three cultures--Anglo, German, and Mexican. The first two had largely merged through the years--beef and beans and apple strudel. The third remained unassimilated, except perhaps in Rio Seco’s unhurried pace of living. Most of the Anglos were addicted to Mexican food, and most of the Mexicans loved football, but these were superficial things.
Many of the older rock homes had a no-nonsense squared-off solidity the Germans had brought from their original settlements in the Pedernales River section of the hill country. Across the railroad tracks, beyond roads dusty from passage of livestock trucks on their way to the shipping pens, lay the Mexican part of town--ageless adobes and small frame shacks, and a fair number of modern GI houses built since the war. The old and the new stood side by side in sharp contrast: a wrinkled, ancient Mexican working up adobe bricks out of straw and mud in a barefoot method known to the fathers of his grandfathers, while next door a three-man crew with electric saws cut raw lumber for a new frame house. Two small brown-faced boys sat on a forebearing Mexican burro, their black eyes alive with curiosity as they watched an older brother tuning the motor of a hotrod.
Just compare these brief paragraphs with the endless paragraphs of most modern MFA mill writings, wherein ‘unpacking’ and the endless redundancy of needless descriptions is the norm, and where those descriptions stand alone, and never bear any fruit in the later narrative. These do, however.
For the ranchman, business centered around Emmett Rodale’s old stone bank and Jim Sweet’s feedstore-wool warehouse, a long, cool, cavernous building of concrete tile. There in round, well-packed jute bags wedged between steel poles and stacked nearly to the high ceiling lay stored the gray-white fleeces that for three generations had been a cornerstone of Rio Seco’s economy.
For the farmer, business focused on the same bank, the cotton gin and a small grain elevator with twin steel tubes that stood taller than anything else in town except the sun-catching silver water tower emblazoned with crudely painted red letters: SRS ‘51.
In the second floor of the rock-fronted courthouse was a room which in recent years had emerged as another important economic fact of life: the county office of the federal PMA [edit- Production and Marketing Administration; now the Farm Service Agency]. Next to rain, perhaps, it had become the most important fact. Here the man of the land came to declare his crop acreage, his past year’s plantings. Here he was told how much land he would be allowed to seed in cotton, in grain sorghums, in whatever other crops might be under federal control. Here he came for price support and to receive checks to help him pay for terraces and water-spreading, for water wells and surface tanks, for battling back the prickly pear and thorny mesquite.
Here he sold his freedom bit by bit, and was paid for it on the installment plan.
March Nicholson, the county PMA officer, stood at the open window, looking down on the freshly mowed courthouse lawn, the buried sprinkler system showering green bermuda grass dotted by patches of dying winter rye. It always irritated him the way people parked haphazardly around the courthouse curb, ignoring the town ordinances, if indeed there were any. Across the street under a live-oak tree, half blocking the driveway to Nicholson’s rented home, stood a pickup truck with a Hereford cow tied in the sideboarded bed and a saddled horse in an open-topped trailer hitched behind it. Horse droppings had tumbled over the tailgate and onto the ground; Nicholson would have to use his shovel tonight. He cursed under his breath. In the back of another pickup waited two Border Collie sheepdogs, resting but alert-eyed, watching a farmer pull up in a bobtail truck with two big tractor tires and several sacks of planting seed.
Here we get the novel’s central story and conflict set up, with a definite clash of views to come, but we don’t get the dull European moralism of their lengthy 19th Century tomes, nor do we get the ceaseless masturbatory embroidering of post-World War Two American fiction, especially the Postmodern sort represented by a novel released in the same year as Kelton’s: Thomas Pynchon’s far more lauded but vastly inferior crapfest, Gravity's Rainbow, which actually, albeit superficially, spouts many of the same moralisms from its character- to never trust people in power, and that they inevitably fuck things up worse than they would be fucked up. Kelton simply does it better in three brief paragraphs than Pynchon does it in 330,000 words!
Nicholson’s baleful eye was pulled away from the horse droppings by a brush-scarred green pickup pulling into an open parking space.
‘Well, I’ll be damned. I wish you’d look who’s come to the meeting.’
His district supervisor pushed to his feet from a chair in the courtroom’s jury box where he had slouched to read a copy of the morning San Angelo paper. He watched a heavy, graying ranchman step out of the pickup and limp up the concrete sidewalk toward the front steps of the courthouse. He saw nothing which made that man look different from the couple of dozen stockmen and farmers already gossiping in the courtroom.
‘I don’t know him. Is he somebody special?’
‘He’s Charlie Flagg.’
The name meant nothing to the supervisor. ‘One of the rich ones?’ he guessed. In this part of the country it was often hard to tell the rich man from the poor one by looking at him. The rich man was as likely to be wearing patched trousers and runover boots as the most destitute Mexican cowboy in town. One could not afford to put up a front and the other did not have to.
Nicholson shook his head. ‘No, not rich. Charlie Flagg is one of those operators in the middle ground ... smaller than a lot of them. You’ve seen that sign on the edge of town, the one about the three old cranks? Charlie Flagg is Crank Number One.’
Note how, after a dense little unpacking (the MFA term used in its proper context and meaning!) of a century or more’s worth of local history, Kelton circles back to the opening humor, and targets the noel’s protagonist in a manner that, even though we’ve little physical description of him, immediately sets him apart from the rest of the men in the scene. This is good writing. Period.
As the tale move on, we get a portrait of the townsfolk, and the people who work for Charlie- Lupe Flores, his foreman, whose family lives in a shack on the Flagg property. We also learn of Charlie’s wife, Mary, and son, Tom, with whom Charlie will later have a falling out with.
Here is how we are introduced to Mary Flagg, from Chapter 2, p. 33-34:
Mary was banging around in the kitchen, rattling cookware and dishes. She stepped into the dining-room doorway, rubbing her hands in an apron. ‘Don’t you all get too comfortable. Dinner’s about ready.’
A niece of August Schmidt, Mary was about ten years younger than Charlie. He had been on the sundown side of his twenties when he had met her, worrying that he might face the rest of his life as an old bachelor like so many graying cowboys he had known, sleeping cold on long winter nights in some far-off and lonely cow-camp. He had begun thinking regretfully about the pretty girls he had met and hadn’t asked. Mary was from over on the Pedernales, barely twenty then, tiny as a hummingbird and looking just as delicate.
Look at the simple and original way to describe the age of the characters, and how perfectly it feels in this western milieu. And how many men have felt like Charlie, at a certain age, wondering if life would ever be lucky to send a little filly his way? Moments like this deftly put readers in Charlie’s shoes.
Charlie had no idea how strong a hummingbird really was. After all these years it sometimes surprised and disconcerted him to see how much hard-steel strength could be wrapped up in a small package.
She was not much larger now than when he had first met her; she had broadened a little in the hips but was never inclined toward fat. Her face showed lines, and when the light fell right it picked up silver strands in her brown hair. A pity, Charlie thought sometimes, remembering, wishing he could have put her in a picture frame and kept her just the way she was when he had married her. In temperament as well as in looks.
In the beginning Charlie had thought Mary’s hill-country German mother had bequeathed her nothing except her considerable cooking skills. But he had gradually found there was more; Mary had her mother’s square-headed determination and stubbornness as well.
The big kitchen always teased Charlie with a rich aroma of baked biscuits, chili beans, cooling cake, sugar-crusted apple pie. The hell of it was that she would cook up a tableful of strong ranch staples and rich German Mehlspeisen, then talk her damnedest to keep Charlie from eating it. She never stopped guying him about his weight.
Look at that concise portrait of a relationship, with food as food, but also metaphorically filling in for their sex life, and ending with the sort of situation that defines most loving relationships- the joshes and teases. One also gets a sense of life’s slow mutability, and the natural way we embrace it. Note the lack of unneeded details, and everything here gives a sense of this couple’s individual and composite character that is touched upon again, later in the novel, in similar scenes of the duo. No waste, at all.
We get scenes of sheep shearing that show Charlie working with neighbors and employees, we get hints of Charlie’s bigotry and paternalism, even as we see that he is slowly letting go of both.
In Chapter 3, p. 72, we get this:
Then there were Lupe and Rosa Flores. Rarely did Charlie think of them in terms of their race. They were simply people to him- good people. He took pride in their loyalty to the ranch, their honesty, their hope that their children might grow up to a better life than their own. If some of his liking was base on the fact that they simply never gave him any argument, any resistance, he did not realize it.
If there was a more naked belying of the claim that the novel is conservative, whereas it’s really the protagonist that is, I could not find it in the whole near 400 pages of text. There are others, though, if a little less obvious- trust me.
But Kelton also excels at merely describing an era and place (from Chapter 4, page 75):
Other places might have several drouths in a single summer. Texas was more likely to have several summers in a single drouth. Drouth here did not mean a complete absence of rain. It meant extended periods of deficient rainfall, when the effects of one rain wore off long before the next one came so that there was no carryover of benefits, no continuity.
The novel proceeds through months and years, and we see Charlie hunting coyotes, in a humorous scene where a neighbor of his gets a comeuppance, and then Charlie hurts himself and has to rely on a wetback for help. He survives, and hires the youngster on, protecting him from the Federales, as they are known in Rio Seco. Some terrific chapters do nothing but give in depth shading to characters major and minor around the town and in Charlie’s family and ranch, and then we get a major turning point, when Charlie gets involved when Lupe’s daughter, Anita Flores, is nearly raped by Danny Ortiz, and this brings up the paternalism issue, again, for Mr. Charlie, as Anita’s brother, Manuel, thrashes Danny, longing to kill him, until Charlie intervenes.
From Chapter 9, pages 197-198:
‘Mister Charlie, you know Anita. But what if she was some other girl? Somr Spanish girl you didn’t know? What would you think?’
Hastily Charlie said, ‘I wouldn’t think no different. I’d…’ He trailed off.
‘No offense, Mister Charlie, but you would think like the sheriff.’
A sense of guilt came over Charlie, and he did not like it. Lupe knew him in some ways better than Charlie knew himself.
‘But we just can’t let him get away with it.’
Lupe’s mouth went grim. ‘We do not need a sheriff to take care of family things.’
Charlie ends up preventing an even greater crime, but by that chapter’s end, Manuel is very resentful, having been emasculated.
The continued drought gets Big Emmett Rodale, the banker, to pressure Charlie to fire Lupe to save costs, and ask for his son Tom to return home. Charlie resists, as Tom has made a name for himself as a champion rodeo roper. Charlie tries varied schemes to stay afloat, then Tom returns, with a smug, bitchy wife, named Dolly, in tow. She’s out to get all she can, and resents Tom’s parents and their lifestyle, especially when they are forced to live in the Flores shack, after Lupe is finally let go.
There are terrific scenes that expound on the inner construction of Charlie Flaggm such as this one, from Chapter 12, pages 246-247:
He knew most of the individual cattle. He could call to mind the mammies of them, and sometimes the grandmothers and great-grandmothers. That young cow with the stub tail- she lost it as a calf when Tom had impatiently shut a trailer gate a little too fast. Her old mammy had had the same run of hard luck before her; she had had her tail eaten away in a bad screwworm year. And her mammy, Charlie remembered, had been a salty old bitch they had to rope almost every time they needed to bring her in. Charlie would have sold her but Tom had been only a boy then, and that old cow was his favorite of all the herd. He had always loved to rope.
That heifer yonder with the small red spot around her eye had come from a cow that was the daughter of a dogie Mary had raised on a bottle. The dogie’s mammy was a first-calf heifer that died giving birth. Charlie could remember how he and Lupe had cut into the still warm heifer to save the half-born calf. They hadn’t let Tom watch because they thought it was too bloody a sight for a boy. Didn’t seem so long ago, really. But that little calf had been the grandmother of this heifer here. Time sure had a way of slipping by a man.
Time and memories- so many good things and so many bad- but strange how the bad things seemed to fade so that you remembered mostly the good. Maybe that was one of life’s main compensations, having those memories with the rough edges blunted down and the bright parts polished to a diamond gleam.
He wondered if someday he would even forget this son-of-a-bitching drouth.
Now, reread that scene, and look at how we get INTO Charlie Flagg by what he observes and knows about his external world. We are seeing Charlie Flagg BY seeing through his eyes and riding his memories. We are in his shoes. What a character sees with hi seyes is always more important in determining the character than what the color of his eyes are. I.e.- don’t describe superfluous things to show off the details of things that do not matter. Instead, describe the things that matter to a character, and you gave limned the important things- those stated and not. Just compare that piece of writing to the banal soap operas written by Jonathan Franzen. Note how Kelton deftly slips in an apothegm about time in between the details of the workaday life of a rancher. Note how we get details of a memory of a cow as a baby, and how that cow’s being loved by the son explains his love of roping- with no grandiose filigrees and bullshit philosophizing, and sans and pseudo-deconstructive techniques. And this all works and sticks in a reader’s mind because we can relate to the character, for even none too deep folks like Charlie Flagg have depths that they do not get, nor can they plumb. Real people are exactly like that, they are not the zombies of Postmodernism, and the slacker attitudes and lazy writing that abounds does not reflect reality, whose recreation is the very purpose of art, in order to afford the percipient a greater understanding of said reality. We all recall moments, small and overlooked by others, at jobs, in school, in marriages, moments of love and anger. Kelton gets it. The MFA writing mill graduates do not.
Another great example of characterization from Kelton comes from a scene on page 276, from Chapter 14. Charlie has been instructed to sell off his cattle and buy goats to help supplement his remaining herd and sheep. That he is not able to make these decisions based on his instincts galls him:
Only the mohair goats had paid their way. Those lousy goats! He had nourished a secret hope that they would lose money so he could throw them up to Big Emmett as an example of the banker’s poor judgment. But contrary to other commodities, mohair remained in strong demand. The goats not only more than paid for the little amount of feed Charlie had grudgingly bought for them, but they subsidized a considerable share of the feed bill for the sheep.
It was hard to hate something that continued to pay when all else was going to hell. If they hadn’t been bought at Big’s stubborn insistence, Charlie might have begun to like them.
Here we see Kelton at his best. Simple, unadorned, and direct, yet the moment resonates. This is not to say that all writing has to be this way to be good, just that so much of it is bad, in any format, and so little of that bad follows the Kelton example, that the MFA hacks might think they’d benefit if they actually thought outside the box. Of course, they would then have to read outside the box, and to do so means putting down the latest PC and multicultural hack published for attributes that do not include good writing and picking up works that are far too easy to dismiss because of their own myopic Left Wing biases. Naturally, Kelton is a writer lost amidst the biases of both sides, as this book is also clearly and manifestly NOT a Conservative book nor diatribe. It’s a tale of an old fashioned man whose final fate comes about because of biases- his own, and those biases are his own shortsightedness.
The rest of the novel ends with Charlie and Tom splitting up his ranch, Tom going back into the rodeo, the Flagg ranch falling into disrepair, most of the ranchers of Rio Seco selling out and moving away, after Charlie brings down the wrath of the government on them by speaking to a reporter about how subsidies are unneeded. Unwittingly, he dooms his neighbors and himself, even though the drought eventually breaks. Charlie, however, gets the last laugh on a neighbor who refused to renegotiate with him and Tom in good faith, and who suffers most of all. Then there is a disastrous ending, wherein Charlie accidentally kills most of his goats. That is preceded by the return of Manuel Flores to work at the ranch for free, out of gratitude to Charlie, and this smacks of a deus ex machina, regardless of the dead goats. We get an epilogue on the Manuel-Danny Ortiz feud, and we get a weak final sentence and image. That, along with the deus ex machina, and a few other minor weak moments have me accord this book a near great, not great status. In a sense, it suffers from what Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon does with its poor and trite last few minutes.
That said, some strong arguments can be made that it is a great novel, regardless of genre. I’ve quoted a number of instances of flat out great writing within this essay. If this is Kelton’s greatest work, as many claim, then it is likely he’s not a great writer, just a very good one with some outliers that are better. The paperback version I read has, at its end, a selection from another Kelton novel- a definite western called Slaughter, and while it features good, solid prose, it does not, in its dozen or so selected pages, come close to what Kelton achieved in this novel. I have read a few of the novels of Larry McMurtry- but none in the last 20+ years, and I’ve read some short stories and the utterly banal The Twilight Zone Lite book, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (none of his Border Trilogy- although I’ve seen films based on his work), and I can say Kelton is clearly superior to the bloated prose and silly grotesques of McCarthy, while he seems much more focused and to the point than the often meandering McMurtry. Of recent western prosists, the argument seems to be strong that Kelton was top dog.
He even seems to have had a touch of the seer in him, when Charlie Flagg opines:
‘There’ll come a time in this country when a barrel of water is worth more than a barrel of oil.’
Of course, critics, both in and out of the western novel genre, have mangled their appraisals of Kelton. In this review, a critic named James Jones (not the novelist) writes:
It’s hard to ignore similarities to Ayn Rand when reading this book. Flagg is in some sense a Texan John Galt or Hank Reardon. Flagg:
Now, if you go in my wife’s kitchen you’d see an old pet cat curled
up close to the stove. She’s fat and lazy. If a mouse was to run across the
kitchen floor that old cat wouldn’t hardly stir a whisker. She’s been fed
everything she wanted. She depends on us. If we went off someday and left her
But out at the barn there’s cats that can spot a mouse across two corrals. I never feed them. They rustle for theirselves, and they do a damn good job of it. If I was to leave they’d never miss me. All they need is a chance to operate. They may not be as fat as the old pet, but I’d say they’re healthier.
The language is not as highflown as Galt’s famous speech in Atlas Shrugged, but it expresses similar ideas. However, there are crucial differences. Rand’s philosophy is totalitarian: she wants everyone to share it, and indeed it would not work unless everyone did share it. She admits no weakness. Kelton’s, expressed through Flagg, is individual. He alienates some of his friends when the above quote gets published in the newspaper, but he repeatedly says he is not trying to dictate what others do, merely explain his own actions. He is also perfectly willing to help friends just because they are friends, with no expectation of remuneration, something no Rand hero would ever do. In other words, Flagg is recognizably human. Rand’s heroes really are not.
While Jones is correct in differentiating Flagg from the cardboard cutouts and mannekins that populate Rand’s turgid prose, he again makes the obvious error of conflating Flagg’s POV with that of the novel and the author. While I never met Kelton and know not his opinions on life, love, politics, art, religion, and so forth, I can say, having read the book, and as shown in the excerpts above, the novel totally repudiates such a claim and is at 180° from such a political bent.
This book, as mentioned, is in many ways a descendent novel of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath, and other lesser Depression Era social realism novels. Charlie Flagg, in fact, dooms himself and his neighbors precisely because he repudiates the New Deal values and virtues of communal and governmental assistance. His selfish and loner stance is a complete failure, and the book clearly recognizes this. The ending, good or ill, acts as an exclamation point to this fact!
Yet, even reviews that try to counter the unbridled enthusiasm western partisans have for the novel, and all things Kelton, get things wrong, as in this 2011 review, from Texas Monthly, by Don Graham:
In estimations of Kelton’s writing, however, faith outruns reason. In an oft-quoted spurt of enthusiasm, the western aficionado Jon Tuska called The Time It Never Rained ‘one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in [the twentieth] century.’ Think about that for a minute. Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dreiser, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Mailer, Pynchon, Updike, Bellow, Wharton, Morrison, Warren, Ellison, DeLillo—that’s fifteen authors right there, and there is no way that Kelton belongs in that company. But Tuska was hardly alone in his adoration. In 1995 the Western Writers of America declared Kelton to be the greatest western writer of all time. Willa Cather, the author of My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, finished second. I think we can all agree that Kelton was certainly the greatest western writer of all time named Elmer.
Of course, Graham is placing all of HIS faith on name value, alone, and ignoring actual writing accomplishment. To date, I’ve only read two books by Kelton- this one, and Sandhills Boy: The Winding Trail Of A Texas Writer, as well as a book of essays on the man, with liberal selections of his prose.
From that alone, and compared to those writers whose works I’ve read, I can definitively say that Kelton is, at least at his best, better than Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, the equal of Dreiser and Dos Passos, a notch or so below Steinbeck, better than Mailer, WAY better than Pynchon and Updike, a bit better than Bellow (although I’ve only read Bellow’s short fiction), well above Wharton, Morrison, and Warren (although, to be fair, I’ve not read Warren’s prose- only his poetry- since my teens), at about on par with Ellison (albeit it vastly different), and well beyond DeLillo. He also is on par with Cather.
And I’ll put my critical ability against Graham or anyone else, anywhere, any time, and this essay against his in any forum. Unlike Graham, I am specific and unbiased, and, as a native New Yorker transplanted to Texas, via the Upper Midwest, I can say that, as the writer of this near great to great work, Elmer Kelton is one of the best dozen or so writers this nation has produced and published in its history. As years go on, I will likely pick up more of his works to read on my peregrinations, but even if they never do reach the heights of The Time It Never Rained, that won’t diminish this work an iota.
This novel and this writer present a nearly forgotten moment and place in American history and preserve it so that future generations will be able to know of it, and learn lessons of its reality for future ones- be they here or on worlds yet plowed. That alone gives it cultural value and import. The skill and accomplishment with which that import is wrought makes it art; and no sciolistic polemicists nor addlepated critics can deny either portion of that equation.
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