With the exception of Where the Boys Are, set in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Swarthout’s novels take place either in Michigan, where he was born and raised, or in the more spacious landscape of his adopted home in the West. Moreover, the novels tend to mirror the landscape: The ones set in the East are somewhat cribbed and confined in theme, whereas the broader backdrop of the West seems to liberate his prose and the scope of his thematic concern.
His first novel, Willow Run, written in 1943, reflects a United States going to war. The novel follows the story of six workers in a bomber plant who, united by ride sharing, manage to damage one another’s lives during a graveyard shift filled with misunderstanding, jealousy, and violence. Much of the characterization is weak, and there are some dreadfully loose ends; however, much of Swarthout’s basic promise is in evidence. Willow Run begins to reveal Swarthout’s eye for detail, his empathy for the vulnerable, and his basic affirmation of individual dignity.
His second novel, They Came to Cordura, reflects Swarthout’s fascinations with the testing of courage and the physical and psychic landscape of the West. Again, Swarthout juxtaposes individual effort against the dynamic of a group. Five American soldiers involved in the bloody expedition ordered against Pancho Villa have been chosen to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. The central character, Major Thorn, had exhibited cowardice in the face of the enemy. His disgusted commanding officer assigns Thorn to select recipients for the Medal of Honor and escort them to Cordura for an awards ceremony—as an added humiliation, he is designated to make the presentations.
Swarthout handles what could have been simply melodrama with understanding and skill. The journey to Cordura proves to be full of physical and emotional pitfalls. Thorn wonders what facet of character separates the cowardly from the brave, his cowardice from the seemingly careless courage of the hero. As it turns out, the heroes are far from noble, and their bravery under fire was nothing if not serendipitous. Moreover, Thorn discovers in himself the courage that he had thought was absent. Swarthout’s experience as an infantryman during World War II gives this work a ring of authenticity. Moreover, the novel fully establishes Swarthout’s gift as a gripping storyteller.
When Swarthout shifts from telling a good story to social criticism, he loses narrative momentum, and his characters tend to become stereotypes. Welcome to Thebes (1962) and The Cadillac Cowboys (1964) are illustrative of these flaws. The former follows the adventures of Sewell Smith, a down-and-out writer seeking material for a pulp novel. Motivated as much by malice as by greed, Smith discovers that an eighth-grade nymphet has been dispersing her charms to the town worthies. Delighted to have the opportunity to settle old scores and pick up a little extortion money, Smith sets about ruining people’s lives. The novel has a morbid fascination, but it is difficult to care about people who are essentially shallow and preoccupied with themselves.
The characters in The Cadillac Cowboys suffer from equally truncated development. The corruption of the plain, honest cowhand into a rich urban bumpkin is the stuff of television comedy. Moreover, what purports to be a satire is interspersed with long passages on the destruction of the environment. As much as one might sympathize with Swarthout’s passion and point of view, the reader would be better advised to turn to the works of Joseph Wood Krutch or Edward Abbey.
Swarthout manages to interweave social criticism, character development, and story line successfully in Bless the Beasts and Children, a novel that may very well stand the test of time. Here he is at his very best; the reader shares his anger and disgust with a society that makes victims of the innocent—the beasts and children. Swarthout does not stop to preach. Instead, he tells of the plight of the buffalo that are about to be slaughtered by so-called sportsmen and of the mission of a group of misfit boys who are out to save them. By the close of the novel, it is clear that he sees deep flaws within American society.
Swarthout has the unusual ability to involve his readers with idiosyncratic characters who are often the outcasts and misfits of a society that demands they be different. Paradoxically, his best creations are some of the most flawed characters. John Bernard Books, however, the dying gunman of The Shootist, is a vivid exception.
Books is a man who represents his time and place and who has outlived his circumstances. He stands tall and lives by a personal code of honor. In short, as a representative of the rugged individualism of the American frontier, he is everything that modern America is not. Books faces the circumstances of his dying with dignity and courage. When those who would seek to profit from his death move in like eaters of carrion, Books beats them at their own game. Books is not for sale, but Swarthout seems to suggest that most things in the twentieth century are.
Swarthout’s most successful foray into humor is The Old Colts (1985), which picks up the story of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson when they meet again in the New York City of 1916. They encounter the likes of Damon Runyon, the bard of Broadway (whose Sky Masterson of the 1932 musical Guys and Dolls was, in fact, patterned on Bat, then a newspaperman and gambler in New York); Jimmy Walker, the dandy governor of New York; Arnold Rothstein, the flamboyant gangster; and Teddy Roosevelt. After geriatric escapades among the urban folk, Wyatt and Bat head for Dodge City, a town more worthy of their talents.
In The Homesman, Swarthout turns once again to individuals who are tested by the rigors of frontier life, a life frequently crueler to the women than to the men. Faced with isolation, hunger, and the illness and death of children, many women broke down, escaping from misery into madness. When this occurred, a homesman had to be appointed to escort the broken women home. This is the story of an unlikely couple yoked together by necessity. Mary Bee Cuddy, moved by the dementia of her best friend, offers to escort four women to meet the Ladies Aid Society in Iowa, from there to be returned to their families.
Cuddy must team up with the reprobate George Briggs. The story of Cuddy and Briggs is central, but the flashbacks to the lives of the women who have gone insane is told with gripping power. Swarthout demonstrates again that he is able to enlist compassion for the broken, for the victims of life who, despite their personal plights, manage to affirm human worth.
Swarthout is most effective when he sticks to storytelling and abandons rhetoric. There is a repressed anger in his novels that sometimes leads him to preach or become vitriolic, and his humor tends to be heavy-handed. On the other hand, when he moves beyond social ciphers, he creates characters who engage a reader’s mind and heart. Moreover, he is willing to risk writing novels that take a moral stance; at his best, he tells a good story that has a point.
Bless the Beasts and Children
First published: 1970
Type of work: Novel
A group of troubled adolescents undergoes a rite of passage at an Arizona summer camp that specializes in turning boys into cowboys.
In Bless the Beasts and Children, Box Canyon Boys Camp becomes a microcosm for American society; a process of “natural selection of age and cruelty and regionalism and kindred interest” divides...
(The entire section is 3171 words.)