Vivid in sweep and detail, fresh in style and voice, this tale of the Dalton Gang's rise, exploits and final fall, told from the perspective of the lone survivor some forty or so years later, still leaves one feeling a little let down at the end.
It's hard to root for the guys who are wantonly killing otherwise innocent folk while rampaging and whoring through the countryside, rustling horses, stealing cattle, and robbing trains and banks. The final shoot out, which puts all but the youngest member of the original Dalton gang down for the count, is exciting and, perhaps, the best part of the book which otherwise tends to drag in some of the earlier sections. But it's not enough to offset the sense of nihilistic aimlessness that pervades much of the story.
Though extremely well written (I loved Jansen's capacity to capture the rich detail of this imagined frontier world) the characters simply failed to win me over because of their rather cold heartlessness and often mindless cruelty. I was also a little put off by the first person narration which, we're told, is enriched by what our narrator heard from others after the fact, thus enabling him to be able to recount the most intimate details regarding events he had no part in. But even given this sort of second hand information, it's hard to credit his knowledge of some of the events he recounts. This part of the tale just didn't ring true enough to sustain the illusion of veracity a novel requires.
All of this said, the voice perfectly captures its era, or so it seemed to me. One reads this book with the sense that one is seeing the old West (or this part of it, anyway) as it really was and not through some romanticized patina or otherwise distorted lense. Still, it wasn't fully satisfying and, as an effort to give us a demythologized picture of the Western mythos, it's less powerful, less moving than a book like Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove: A Novel (Lonesome Dove). Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton, Emmett and Bill all seem rather thin characters, hard to care about in the way we come to care about Gus MaCrae, Captain Woodrow Call and their assorted hangers-on in McMurtry's book. Even Miss Eugenia Moore, Bob Dalton's risque girlfriend and the real brains of the gang, is only mildly interesting and comes across as a somewhat distant and rather stereotypical Western gun moll type.
It's their displaced romanticism, we're told, their near childish love of adventure for its own sake, combined with a lack of underlying moral scruples, that drives the bunch of them into this rather dissolute and pointless life. Or, rather, that's what drives Bob and Eugenia and Emmett. Big, dumb Grat just unites a lack of scruples with pure cussedness while Bill, who seems an intelligent up-and-comer when we first meet him, with grand and admirable ambitions, turns out to lack even the most basic of sentiments in a culture like this, kin loyalty. That the brothers get their start as lawmen (one older brother, Frank, is killed in the line of duty as a lawman in Indian Territory) is never fully reconciled with the kind of lawbreakers they finally become.
Still, if you want to see how things might have been in the old West, and don't much care about heroes, even flawed ones such as we get in Lonesome Dove, then this book is certainly worth a read. I was especially interested in it for the picture it gives of late 19th century Oklahoma, some 40 or so years after the Five Civilized Tribes had been involuntarily relocated there from the east coast as a result of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830.
author of The King of Vinland's Saga