So I Read the Story

The excrement really isn’t slowing it’s assault on the oscillating device as it relates to my friend Benjamin Whitmer‘s review for Spinetingler Magazine of the James Reasoner story, “The Conversion of Carne Muerto,” from the new anthology called On Dangerous Ground: Stories of Western Noir from Cemetary Dance Publications. If you recall, this whole bru-ha-ha inspired my recent post on what issues maybe fire you up as a reader, or movie watcher, or anything along those lines.

The debate around the story is that Whitmer calls it out as belonging to a certain type rooted in what he calls the “Indian hater” tradition. He then does a pretty thorough job of identifying the hallmarks of that tradition, and how they have perpetuated several myths as it relates to Whites vs. Indian interactions in American history. He does this as explanation for the reasons he doesn’t like the story. There are strong political and cultural emotions at play here, and Ben doesn’t pull any punches. It’s generated a lot of heat and hot air, in many cases from people who haven’t read the story, and probably haven’t even thought that much about how Indians have been treated in literature or movies.

Happily I was able to acquire a copy of the story, and have the hardcover edition of the anthology headed my way. Having read the story now, if I must make a cold, emotionless evaluation, I’d say Whitmer is right, for all the reason’s he’s given. Whitmer’s primary argument is that this is a story that’s a pretty note-for-note take on the tradition as he outlines it, and really does nothing to bring anything new to the trope. Frankly, that assessment is spot on, if one chooses to view it in that light.

But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned a fair amount of the anger that’s been thrown at him.

In a nutshell, the story is this (spoiler alert!): The tale is told from the point of view of a doctor working with soldiers out on the Southwestern frontier. Carne Muerto is a young Comanche who is taken captive by Texas Rangers, and they learn he is the son of the chief. Wounded, they bring him back in hopes of perhaps using him for information or to trade for white prisoners. When they are preparing to lock him up, a young white, Christian woman freaks out that they shouldn’t be locking him up, and convinces the various officers that he should be turned over to her care while they decide what to do with him. She commences to try and convert him to Christianity. It seems to take. The doctor, who has been charged with guarding him while he’s in the care of the woman, grows lax. Carne Muerto escapes, knocks the doctor unconscious, rapes the woman, and splits. He goes on to lead many successful raids on whites. The woman hangs herself. Her husband dies in a suicidal attack a couple years later. Unhappy stuff, but hey — this is a Western Noir anthology.

I’m a big fan of James Reasoner, the writer of the story. It has many of the elements I like about his writing — clear prose, solid dialogue, and a firm grasp of what people love about traditional Westerns. When I pick up a Reasoner yarn, I’m usually pretty aware of what I’m going to get, and the man delivers — he’s totally old school, and I love that about him. I have a ton of admiration for the guy.

Doesn’t mean though that I don’t have some beefs with this particular yarn, some of which come with my own hypersensitivity to how Indians are portrayed in popular culture. The capture and all that is fine. I don’t mind the negative words the white soldiers use in regards to the Indians, because that is a reality of the world they lived in. Maybe it isn’t 100% historically accurate, but whatever is? If I heard a guy down the street talking like that, I’d bust him in the face. But a period Western? I let it slide. To do otherwise tarnishes the realism the writer is trying to capture in the work.

However, these characters are people who were every bit as misogynist as they were anti-Indian. I could see our female character maybe convincing one guy that this “dangerous prisoner” could be given over to her care, but a group of three or four military officers? Even as the narrator is commenting on the hatred in the young warrior’s eyes? Sorry, I’m not buying that. But it happens, and the story continues.

Our ill-fated Christian commences to try and show Carne Muerto the light. He seems to be buckling:

Carne Muerto tapped his chest with a fist. “God here,” he said. “Jesus here.”

Shortly thereafter, vigilance ebbs, and he makes his escape.

Even if I had read the story ignorant of all the points Whitmer has made about it, I would have been very disappointed. Why would this Indian take the time to rape this woman when escape presented itself? A native Indian, young and full of fury, in a hostile environment? I just don’t buy that. I could see him killing the doctor, even killing the woman if she tried to prevent his escape. But rape and leave her behind to sound an alarm if she chose? Doesn’t ring true at all. As for the conversion, I don’t buy that either in the short time the story encompasses. I thought Carne Muerte was faking it, and we really don’t know . . . the characters in the story assume that when he was absolved of sin by becoming Christian, he misunderstood that that meant he could do whatever he wanted and would be forgiven. Again, I’m not buying that. In such a short span could he even come to understand all these concepts enough to really even make decisions based on them? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine a young guy in his position doing anything but haul ass when opportunity presents itself, striking down any who stand in his way. Killing in this instance is really an example of self defense, and who could really blame him. Rape? That is an act of a twisted individual, regardless of who is doing it and why.

The rape becomes a vehicle to drive the remaining characters to doom — the woman’s suicide, her husband’s suicidal demise. Meanwhile the perpetrator gets away presumably unscathed, the villain.

Really, as a story, I suppose it works if you can overlook the cultural weight of it. But I couldn’t have, and haven’t, reviewed it favorably, based mainly on my own personal values and prejudices.

Back to Whitmer’s review. His first mistake was probably not researching a little more who James Reasoner is. The guy is beloved in the community of people most likely to buy this book and read the review. That has brought a lot of the heat on. I suspect that if some no-name like me had written it, the response would be a fraction of what it’s been, if there’d been any at all. James has a lot of respect and love in the community, and it’s been earned.

If he knew Reasoner, or was more familiar with his work and community standing, Ben might have worded his position more carefully. You start dropping hate-bombs and people are gonna freak. Whitmer says he did not intend to call Reasoner an Indian-hater, and I believe him now, but reading the review the first time that is exactly what I took away from it. Even reading it again, I had to look for reasons not to take that away, and most people aren’t going to do that. That’s a tough accusation to overcome.

When Whitmer called out Reasoner for the name of his character (for which Ben has since apologized for), it was pointed out that this story was based on real people and events. Unsurprisingly, that oversight then called into question every point he’d made. In Whitmer’s defense, though, pretty much only in character names alone is this story based on actual events. In this case the real events are the barest foundation of the plot, and can in no way be used as an argument along the lines of, “But this really happened!”

I suspect that what rubs people the wrong way is that the review reads kind of like Ben took the opportunity to get on a soapbox about a subject he’s passionate about and has a lot of knowledge of. The story itself is little discussed, only that it falls into a pool a couple thousand words deep. Nowhere does he say the story shouldn’t have been written, he just explains, in extreme detail, the hows and whys of his dislike for it. It could even be seen as coming off a little finger-waggingly. He doesn’t really even discuss the story much, just leaves it propped against the wall of the paragraphs that precede the section of the review that actually addresses the story itself. A reader comes away a little overwhelmed thinking, “Okay, I guess James Reasoner wrote a story that proves he’s an Indian-hater. Wait . . . what?”

That’s unfair to both these writers.

“The Conversion of Carne Muerto” won’t go down as one of my favorite examples of James Reasoner’s work, but I didn’t come away from it pissed at the lost time I’d spent reading it either. That’s fine, the dude has probably written 50,000 words in the time it’s taken me to babble on in this review, and I’ve got a pile of his stuff I’m eagerly looking forward to reading. I’m no less of a fan, and I trust he won’t think I’m an asshole for saying what I think about this particular yarn.

As for Benjamin Whitmer, I’d never tell him to rein it in, even as I’d slide him a beer and remind him that he’s kinda made the bed he’s now going to sleep in until it all blows over. In a world where a lot of artists aren’t willing to take stands on anything that might lose them readers (i.e. paying customers), I admire him for not backing down. The problem is the thing has snowballed, and it’s probably time to just walk away. There are some absolutely ridiculous accusations being leveled at him, and at this point I don’t think anything but harm can come from responding further. I suppose my review here is just adding to the absurdity too, but hey, hardly anyone reads my damn blog anyway.

Look, we all bring our political and cultural and crazy shit to everything we experience. I recently read somewhere a blog by someone reviewing two movies, Source Code and Battle: Los Angeles. This person hated Source Code, which has generally been viewed pretty damn favorably (and I happened to love it) because the villain was a clean-cut white dude. “How typical of those stupid libs in Hollywood, who hate America, to make the terrorist something other than an arab” or something along those lines. They were pissed. Battle: Los Angeles, however (a movie pretty much universally panned that I didn’t see because I thought it looked like an absolute piece of shit), they loved, because “it showed exactly what our brave heroes in the military are really all about.” So there we go. Everyone does it — I’m sure we can all think of examples in our own lives. If the writers of those two films had done the opposite, an entirely separate batch of people would have been up in arms.

James Reasoner isn’t an Indian hater who intentionally wrote a story to splatter his racist views all over everyone who read it. Ben Whitmer didn’t intentionally call him such. But somehow, some of those lines have gotten blurred and that’s unfortunate.

10 thoughts on “So I Read the Story”

  1. >There's no part of this I disagree with, Chris. And I'm absolutely okay with the response I'm getting; that's why I'm responding as time allows. You'll hear no complaints from me.

  2. >I read the damn blog! And this is a great contribution to the kerfuffle. Thanks for taking the time share your thoughts, and to actually read the story before doing so.

  3. >A well thought out and honest take, Chris. I disagree with certain points of your post but will discuss that in our e-mails. Like I said before you're a stand up guy.

  4. >Elizabeth, I meant to say no one reads the blog who isn't absolutely fabulous. My mistake. Ben, thanks.David, thanks again. I'll look forward to your thoughts. I'm a pretty disagreeable person, so I'm never surprised when people don't see eye to eye with me, heh.

  5. >I now have even less interest in seeing that goofy alien war movie.Any time you offer up a review that really isn't a review but is in fact more of an essay like Ben did, regardless of the thing being reviewed, right or wrong, you're going to ruffle some feathers.

  6. >Having now read the review, I can say that its history of this particular literary theme is an illuminating analysis of something familiar that's still poorly understood. I'm guessing the heat in the debate over it has to do with James Reasoner, whose work we admire but may wonder at his choice of subject. My take is this: As an author, James is free to write what he wants. Any reader is also free to take issue with it, and say so in print. Not sure in this forum why people can't just agree to disagree.

  7. >Gee, I hate all this. We reviewed these stories in a hope to get people to read or buy the book. We tried to step in to fill the void left by vanishing newspapers. We are a step or more closer to the writers though. It is hard to criticize, but if we don't are we anything more than shills. I don't know the answer, but I like James's work immensely and I respect Ben's attempt to address what he saw as salient issues. Damn! No way to win this one.

  8. >Patti, sometimes I think a "controversy" like this probably does sell more books. I know I bought a copy of it as a result when, most likely, I wouldn't have. At least not a hardcover copy. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

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