Gather. Gather. Try not to gush.
Because I know I am bound to go off on a Winsletian ramble I shall offer you two reviews of this book. Take your pick.
THE RESTRAINED VERSION
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a masterpiece. I don't use the word often to describe a book and I use it here with all due consideration. Ron Hansen's remarkable novel had me hypnotised from the opening sentence. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you have any faith in my reading suggestions then I urge you to seek this out. I am confident you won't be disappointed. Trust me.
THE GUSHING VERSION
One of the ten commandments of reading, if such a list existed, would be this:
Or something like that. I stick to the rule religiously, which is about as religious as I get. Quite apart from the fact that I want to form my own images of the characters, places and scenes without the Hollywood version getting in the way I just think it is the correct way to go about things. If there are exceptions they are usually films where I have no desire to read the book in the first place. I laughed a couple of times during Legally Blonde but feel no desire to relive the experience on the page, thank you very much.
I accidentally broke the commandment with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford . To be perfectly honest, I didn't know there was a book when I sat down to watch the DVD.
[An aside on the subject of the movie. Regular visitors will know how much I enjoyed it. It was my film of the year last year. I cannot believe it didn't receive more Oscar nominations. Well I can, but I don't like the fact, especially in a year when art house was so well represented. Even with my most objective head on it is at the very least the equal of No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood (although I actually think it is miles better). Brad Pitt, about whom I am usually ambivalent, is spellbinding. Casey Affleck (who did get an Oscar nod) is creepy and slimy and mesmerising. It is slow, yes, but with a film that you don't want to end what is the problem with that?]
When the film ended I was straight online to look up the source material and find out as much as I could about Jesse James and Robert Ford. I believe I was up well into the early house digging out details and staring at pictures of the two men and their acquaintances. I also added the novel by Ron Hansen to my Amazon wishlist.
Fast forward to Christmas. MOTC, angel that she is, has placed a copy of the book under the tree for me. Actually she put loads of books under the tree and I duly started making my way through them.
Fast forward a tad further to last week when I finally got round to reading the thing. If you have seen the film you will almost certainly remember the opening voiceover describing how Jesse James has settled into smalltown life and listing all his quirks, foibles and mannerisms. It is taken almost word for word from the first few pages of the novel. And if, like me, you were struck with the poetry of those spoken lines on screen then you are going to be captivated by 300 pages worth of them in this book.
I hesitate to say this as it may put some of you off but this is a novel that reads like non-fiction. This is all down to the style of Hansen's narration. He is relaying a sequence of events. He is telling the story of Jesse James and Robert Ford with, as far as I can tell, remarkable historical accuracy. But he is also telling it with beautiful and evocative prose.
When I read a biography or history book that attempts to put thoughts and feelings into the heads of its subject I get a bit annoyed. How can the author possibly know what was going through Napoleon's head on day such and such? Or how Shakespeare felt when he wrote some sonnet or other? They are just guessing and I don't like it.
Write it as a novel though, a novel as impressive as this, and I am putty in your hands. Poetic license is a wonderful thing. This book is a wonderful thing. I would go so far as to say it is the best book I have read this millennium. The best book I have read since starting this blog without a doubt. Straight into my all time top ten.
[A further aside, this time on book sales. The Assassination (forgive the abbreviation, but I am sure you understand) is published Souvenir Press, a long established independent publisher. Although the film was hardly a huge box office success it was a reasonably high profile release and it did have Brad Pitt in it. So you would reasonably expect the book to sell quite well on the back of it but I have checked out the book charts and can find no data on it. The Bookscan archive keeps the sales of any book that has ever made it into the top 5000 sellers. To get into the top 5000 you need to sell about 100 copies in any given week. That would suggest that this book has never done that. If that is the case it is a fucking travesty. I don't know the publisher - although they have been kind enough to send me a copy of Hansen's other western Desperadoes - so am unaware of any issues they may have had with retailers but I can assure you that it is very unusual for a book with a film connection such as this not to sell at least a few hundred and often a lot more, even with only limited release and exposure.]
The book itself tells of the final days of American outlaw Jesse James - the title gives you the essential plotline. Settling into family life, James is coming to the end of his career of crime. Most of his cohorts are dead or in jail and he finds himself working with young whippersnappers, one of whom is Robert Ford. Only just 20, Ford has idolised Jesse since he was a child, devouring all the pulp novels and newspaper stories about the James gang he can get his hands on. Now that he is working with Jesse James himself he is starstruck but is also determined to make the most of it.
But as Jesse grows older he becomes less and less trusting of his companions. He is wary, always on the lookout for the double cross. A jittery James isn't particularly good news for his gang, as some of them find out to their cost, but for some reason he confides in Robert and his brother Charley.
This proves to be a rather poor judgement call.
Another impressive aspect to Hansen's novel is how he spins his yarn and maintains the suspense even though you know exactly what is going to happen from the moment you pick up the book.
The Assassination is a work of subtle genius. If you only ever read one book I recommend then please make it this one.