Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: The Time It Never Rained

The Time It Never Rained is an unusual Western by Elmer Kelton. The story is based around actual events - specifically, the Texas drought of the early 1950s - which the author experienced both as a friend and relative of ranchers and as a reporter for the ranching industry. Almost every scene is about Charlie Flagg, a cattle and sheep rancher.

Most Westerns have a heroic archetype as protagonist. Flagg is no hero. He is stubborn, cantankerous, elderly, and disabled. He is distant with his wife and has a troubled relationship with his son. But he is also tough, self-sufficient, and honest. And he has a creed, and that is to take no handouts from anybody. Flagg believes there is no such thing as a free lunch, and is suspicious of apparent free lunches. During the great drought, the government steps in to help out. This help takes several forms: price supports to help out the farmers, free feed to help out the ranchers, and so on. Flagg refuses it all, though it eventually costs him nearly his entire ranch.

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 she'd starve.

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.

Another difference between Kelton's tale and a traditional Western is the lack of enemies. Flagg battles primarily against the drought. In the process he comes into conflict with various of his friends, relatives and business associates, but none of them is an enemy. It would have been easy, given the anti-government ideas in the book, to paint the government as the enemy, but Kelton does not stoop to this either. One gets the idea that the government's well-intentioned but misguided actions are regrettable but inevitable. Flagg laments that, "There was a time we looked up to Uncle Sam; he was somethin' to be proud of and respect. Now he's turned into some kind of muddle-brained Sugar Daddy givin' out goodies right and left in the hopes that everybody's goin' to love him." This is the attitude of an old-time Americanism, the kind of independent man that Tocqueville admired. It is certainly foreign to most of our modern politics, both on the left and the right.

Most Westerns end either in triumph, with the bad guys vanquished and the good guys riding off into the sunset, or (in their more modern incarnations) sometimes in tragedy, the hero dying operatically after saving the day. The Time It Never Rained lacks such a heroic finale, instead ending on an ambiguous note. The reader is left unsure just how Flagg's story will continue beyond the last sentence. Many subplots are left unresolved. This is proper in a tale like this; life offers few final victories. But if there is a moral to the story, it is that it also offers few final defeats.

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