One critic says that Thomas Cobb's Shavetail is a cross between Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. Another called it a cross between Blood Meridian and Red Badge of Courage. My wife took one look at the cover and asked if it was gay porn. They are all mostly wrong, but all a little right, too.
Shavetail, set in a US Cavalry fort in post-Civil War Arizona during the Indian Wars, is told from the perspective of three main characters: Captain Franklin, a soldier’s soldier and disgraced veteran of past Indian Wars campaigns; his adjutant; Lieutenant Austin, a sensitive natural philosopher who may or may not be aware of his homosexuality; and Ned Thorne, delicate but rage filled native of Hartford, CT running from a dark secret. These three characters orbit two others. The first is Brickford, a strange mix of Sgt. Bilko and The Judge from Blood Meridian. The last is Mary, the unseen voice of femininity in the novel, who we hear from only through her diary and rumors across the plains. It is Mary, a fine lady from Massachusetts turned pioneer wife, that drives the story. Her kidnapping by local Apaches is the inertia that drives the cavalry into action.
The action is in a way timeless. The fort, the soldiers, the desert, the enemy. Although set in the Indian Wars, this could easily be placed in Iraq in 2005, or Afghanistan today. The Army is described continually as a force of destruction, moving slowly across the land, laying ruin to everything in its path. Although the description makes it clear that there are smart, brave soldiers in this man’s army, we find few of them here.
|Here comes the Cavalry!|
Oh, and the gay porn crack? Thorne’s delicate features are described constantly, particularly by Austin. Caught up in Brickford’s schemes, Thorne is routinely knocked to the ground by Bickford, who refers to him from the start as Marybelle. Does anything happen while he is down? In a camp full of lonely soldiers far from civilization, the men take turns as the woman as they hold dances in the desert. When one asks Thorne, the “prettiest woman at the ball”, to dance, they drink and trip the night fantastic, only to leave the evening in a bloody fistfight. Shavetail dances around homosexuality, never quite acknowledging it, but never leaving it far from sight.
Shavetail is a nicely literary novel at home in its western setting. I am not sure that it is a western per se, but it is enough of one to earn it the 2009 Spur Award for Best Western Long Novel. This will likely not make my list of favorite westerns, but it is certainly more entertaining than the mass of pretentious literary novels on the market today.