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The Shootist ()

His tombstone is carved and ready.
No angels or jabbery.
Just a small stone,
good quality,
with this on it--
John Bernard Books

J. B. Books is the "shootist" of the title, and on the day--January 22, 1901--that he comes riding into El Paso the newspaper is just announcing the death of Queen Victoria. Books, an infamous man-killer and one of the last, has ridden quite a ways to get to town, despite extreme pain in his nether regions, terrible difficulty urinating, and significant loss of weight, because a doctor there once saved his life after a gunshot wound. Upon examination, Dr. Charles Hostetler informs the 51-year old gun man that he has an inoperable metastasized cancer, that he has only weeks or months to live and that his death will be quite horrible. It isn't just the Victorian Era that's drawing to a close but that of men like J. B. Books. And, whether he realized it or not, Mr. Swarthout's very fine novel came right at the end of the era of the Westerns great popularity in American culture. The book and the film with the archetypal John Wayne that followed the next year were not just elegies for the titular character but for the form. Little surprise that it was the "Winner of the 1975 Spur Award from the Western Writers of America for Best Western Novel and chosen in their 2000 members' poll as one of the 10 Greatest Western novels written in the 20th century."

Though the widowed landlady at the boarding house where Books checked in under a false name initially wants him to leave when his identity is revealed, eventually only she and the doctor want nothing from the dying legend. Her young son wants his guns. The local newspaper wants to sell his story, as does an old flame who shows up. Even the local barber plans to sell cuttings from a haircut. But Books is wise to all these ploys. He also realizes that one other sort of parasite will come to feed off his legacy, fellow shootists looking to make their names by taking him out.

Mr. Swarthout does not whitewash the brutality of Books's life, but does make clear that he has lived by a comprehensible code of laws:
"I will not be laid a hand on. I will not be wronged. I will not stand for an insult. I don't do these things to others. I require the same from them."
For purposes of the novel though, it is his death and dying, the forceful manner in which he seeks to impose his own will on both, that is made into something heroic. If we know all along that there can be only one way for Books to go out, it is also the case that Mr. Swarthout choreographs it all masterfully. This is a genuine American classic.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Glendon Swarthout Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: The Official Website of Glendon Swarthout
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Glendon Swarthout (
    -Glendon Swathout (Wikipedia)
    -SWARTHOUT, GLENDON [1918-1992] (New Netherland Institute)
    -Glendon Swarthout (NY Times)
    -ARCHIVES: glendon swarthout (Find Articles) Don Siegel 26 October 1912, Chicago, Illinois, USA more Date of Death: 20 April 1991, Nipomo, California
    -INFO: The Shootist (1976) (
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Don Siegel (
    -PROFILE: Don Siegel (Senses of Cinema)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: John Wayne (
    -REVIEW: of The Shootist (1976) (Richard Eder, August 12, 1976, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Shootist (Scott Weinberg, Apollo Movie Guide)
    -REVIEW: of The Shootist (The Canadian Cinephile)
    -REVIEW: of The Shootist (James Steffen, Turner Classic Movies)
    -REVIEW: of The Shootist (Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant)

Book-related and General Links: