It took some months before amiable Wyomingite Craig Johnson, who friended me out of the Twitter/Facebook blue (as have David Morrell and Peter Straub), emerged to me from the Internet’s blizzard as the novelist Craig Johnson, the one behind Longmire, the very popular, well-regarded, A&E cable crime series with a modern West setting.
I had earlier caught a couple of episodes of Longmire on the fly and liked it fine, especially for its outdoor Western setting and themes. But due to the tsunami of good TV these days—plus the need to get outside, like its title character--I pass on plenty of shows I might like (e.g., two new IFC series, Top of the Lake and Rectify.) And so, I let Longmire slide off my viewing plate.
To make up for my tardiness, I decided to read a Longmire novel. At the time, I was just finishing The Inferno of Dante when I noticed that canon classic was a central motif in the seventh novel, Hell Is Empty. I thought I’d give that horse a ride. I’m glad I did. (Another thread in this uncanny pattern: I gather the novel has also been adapted for Longmire’s second season, starting May 27.)
Walt Longmire is sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, in remote, rural north-central Wyoming, a great setting for adventure and imagination: wide-open spaces, rolling prairies, beckoning high blue mountains in the distance; peaceful on the surface, but occasionally turbulent, even more so when evil steals its way through the hills like a winter wind.
As Hell is Empty opens, Sheriff Walt is transporting three very bad criminals to a rendezvous with the FBI and a private security firm with security issues. The baddest of Walt’s passengers is Raynaud Shade (a nicely eerie name, maybe drawn from the European trickster myth of Reynard the Fox). Shade is a child-murdering sociopath with mystical pretensions and the teasing enigmatic manner of Anton Chigurh.
Walt and his two deputies play their part professionally, but the other teams do not. Quickly the bad guys break free, take hostages, and make for the snow-covered Bighorn Mountains. Walt Longmire, armed with pistol, rifle, and his deputy’s copy of the Inferno, singlehandedly sets off to track them down one by one through a series of hair-raising, ripping confrontations, through roaring blizzards and a really exciting and vivid forest firestorm, until he and Shade meet for the big showdown on an icy windswept summit in the Bighorn Mountains, a place empty like the Hell described in the epic poem.
While the manhunt plot seems routine, Hell Is Empty is refreshingly strange and eccentric. We urban folks tend to stereotype rural folks as redneck reactionary blanketheads, but, as anyone who spends enough time “out there” knows, they are often much more interesting—and smart and kindly--than anyone you meet on Internet comment boards, or the seedy alleys of big city America.
Certainly, that’s the case here: Walt and his posse are a mixed-raced band of eccentric autodidact bookworms, exurban outcasts, and even a Basque-American. They are “liberal” in some ways, not so in others. Native Americans, of course, figure largely here, but they are neither stone-faced suffering noble plaster saints nor drunken miserable savages. Johnson portrays them with common humanity, from very good to very bad, the whole range of human types.
The supernatural occasionally gleams pleasingly in the air, especially later on, when Walt is joined in his quest by his own Virgil, a mountain hermit with a ghostly manner, who seems to slip in and out on every gust of wind, between the curtain between life and death, like the mythic Wendigo.
The comparisons with Inferno are, fortunately, not overly neat. The writing is at its best in picturing the landscape, but it’s a bit confusing in the second chapter and also often baggy and overwritten in places.
The prose once in a while strains for effect ala Zane Grey, where the barbwire, frontier stoicism of Luke Short (my favorite western writer, with Clifton Adams and Larry McMurtry) might serve better emotionally. I also wish Walt would rein in his wisecracks a little. What, I’m wondering, would a modern literary genre hero who wasn’t such a compulsive wiseguy be like?
Walt (a direct descendant of Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon), is an especially pigheaded, go-it-alone hero: no matter how often the dispatcher pleads with him to wait for backup, as any modern police officer would, Walt plows on alone through ice, snow and fire, no matter what.
At first, this make Walt appear to be a rigid, overused Western stereotype, the man who’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, and a bit of ego-driven bonehead on top. But the fact that Walt is also a recent widower adds a tinge of despair and suicidal wish fulfillment that could be the real spur driving his questionable tactics. It makes him an involving character.
As much as Walt is the hero, Death also keeps turning him away, sending him back down the mountain, away from this frozen Hell, not to his lost Beatrice in unknowable Heaven, but to the people he belongs with, whom he still needs and who still need him, the life still worth living in the beautiful land he calls home.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield