Billy Gashade

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Widely admired for his detective fiction and westerns, the versatile and prolific Loren D. Estleman moves beyond genre writing with BILLY GASHADE. In this picaresque rite of passage novel, the first person narrative of the young hero’s westward journey parallels the troubled history of the United States from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

To illuminate his epic, Estleman skillfully intermingles real people and events with his fictional account, enhancing verisimilitude and making his hero a symbol of the growing nation, whose centennial year Gashade considers a turning point in his life.

A wealthy judge’s son, the narrator inadvertently becomes entangled in the 1863 New York draft riots, thinks he has killed someone, and flees the city, at age sixteen starting a coast to coast odyssey that takes him to frontier brothels, army forts, isolated farms, Indian camps, and—decades later—Hollywood film studios. Assuming a dead stranger’s identity from the man’s calling card—“Billy Gashade/Entertainments”—he smoothly makes the transition from society boy to saloon piano player and guitar troubadour.

Events of the Civil War and the taming of the west provide Billy Gashade’s education, though he is more an observer rather than a full-fledged participant. Along the way, however, he becomes acquainted with such luminaries as General George Armstrong Custer, Chief Crazy Horse, Wild Bill Hickok, Oscar Wilde, and the James brothers. His 1882 ballad about the death of Jesse James becomes a classic and gains Billy a modicum of immortality. It also reveals the sensitivity and humaneness that are vital to his survival, traits that lead three women to become his protectors during crises.

Though Billy Gashade says “Going back was not in my nature,” the story he narrates is an eighty-eight year old man’s retrospective memoir. Satisfied with the path he serendipitously took, he enjoys recalling the good and bad times. The story of this life, as crafted by Estleman, is compelling reading.