Repeat of a Review by Phil Abbott
Readers should note I can count the number of Western novels I have read on three fingers: Portis’s True Grit; Clark’s The Oxbow Incident and Proux’s Brokeback Mountain. My interest was piqued by recently watching Deadwood. Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained was recommended to me as perhaps the best contemporary novel about the American West.
Kelton struggled to find a publisher. He wrote a draft in the later fifties. Unable to find a press, he re-wrote the novel in the early sixties only to fail again. Only after receiving positive reviews of The Day the Cowboys Quit, was The Time It Never Rained published in 1973. From the today’s perspective the novel is hardly innovative. The narrative is linear. There are no picaresque characters. Exploration of racial tension (which Kelton expanded in each draft) is relatively limited. The Time It Never Rained is a family saga about the drought that plagued West Texas in the 1950s. Before the drought began, Rio Seco was a relatively prosperous community of proud and independent ranchers. When the rains finally returned in 1957, the town has all features of The Last Picture Show. Young people have left; ranches have been auctioned; those remaining are angry and dispirited.
Despite its narrative and stylist simplicity, however, Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained is an engrossing novel. The central character, Charlie Flagg, a cattle and sheep rancher, is a figure who exemplifies all the features of a lost masculinity, and by implication, a lost West. Scrupulously honest and hard working, his loyalties are simple. His family and the land are the primary source of his affections. There are some cracks even in this lost world. Flagg’s marriage shows subtle signs of disintegration and one wonders if his wayward son’s behavior is the result of a silent but demanding father. His relationships with the Mexican workers on his ranch are correct and cordial and on occasions affectionate, but as one young Mexican explained to a loyal employee they are also “patriarchal.” The young women on the ranch, both Anglo and Mexican, are treated with exceptional respect by Flagg, but also with a chivalrous manner that is only possible for one who has defined gender relationships on permanently unequal terms.
Perhaps the defining aspect of Flagg’s character is a ferociously protected independence. His refusal to accept government aid indirectly leads to the loss of almost all of his land and stock. On the other hand, Flagg’s resistance to the new economy in which ranchers and the government are partners is for the most part justified. When federal bureaucrats are not incompetent, they are predatory. Thus the tragedy of the West Kelton depicts is one in which the lone rancher’s fate is failure. He will be destroyed by nature or the government. At the close of the novel, the rains finally come but Flagg’s last remaining livestock, a herd of goats, are destroyed in a stampede. Flagg’s reaction to his crestfallen spouse is a classic reiteration of the American Dream: “There is still the Land. A man can always start gain. A man always has to.” This engendering of American enterprise has both a conservative and a revisionist aspect. American greatness is dependent upon the maintenance of masculine values. These values also lead to excess and disaster.
You can find more review links on Todd Mason's blog.