>Back in the early 90s when I first ventured into writing novels, I read a book called Sherwood by Parke Godwin. This book is an alternate spin on the Robin Hood story, and is probably my favorite version. What struck me most, and something I’ve held ever since, was the way the villain was portrayed. In Godwin’s version of the story, Robin’s nemesis is a Norman knight named Ralf FitzGerald in the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham. What Godwin captured so perfectly was in portraying FitzGerald not so much as a supremely evil opponent with no redeeming qualities, but as a culturally-different man whose ideas about how things are, and should be, were opposed to Robin’s. The overriding story played as a clash between the culture and values of the conquering Normans with those of the resident Saxons. It was so much more compelling than the standard black hat vs. white hat that we so often see. Nothing is ever so simple, and I’d have to say that this book, more than anything else, ruined my willingness to accept poorly drawn villains in any medium of storytelling. As bad as he was, most of us were pulling for Darth Vader by the time Return of the Jedi rolled the credits, to say nothing of the irascible Al Swearengen in Deadwood. Al was an asshole and a killer, but we sure didn’t want to see him come up short when Hearst rolled into town.
I don’t think it is a stretch to call Mike Tyson one of our era’s most widely-recognized cultural villains. Some of the ire directed at the former multi-time heavyweight champion may have dissipated over the years, but during the height of his reign he was reviled by millions. He was mean, frightening, and alleged to have done — and convicted in at least one case — horrible things. Street violence. Drugs. Rape. Ear biting. The man was fierce, and he crashed and burned in spectacular fashion while millions cheered and then went looking for their next icon of hatred.
Tyson’s side of the story is told in a fascinating new documentary called Tyson, from director James Toback. Julia and I ventured out to The Wilma the other night to see it, and we both enjoyed it. It was interesting to see other sides to the story; Tyson’s candor in light of his behavior, the betrayals that led to horrible decisions on his part, the headbutts from Holyfield that caused Tyson to snap in the ring and retaliate in brutal fashion; just the whole, imperfect train wreck of his life. It was compelling filmmaking, and while Tyson certainly deserves much of the ire directed at him, we also see a side of him that the media certainly didn’t show us when the events discussed originally occurred. For me, in my current mode of “seeing the world like I’d want to write it,” his story was a perfect, real world example of how the most despicable villain will also have qualities that can touch your heart, and make one say, “If only he had just done this instead. . . . ” A writer could do far worse that create a villain as multi-faceted and interesting as the real world Iron Mike Tyson.
For the first time in longer than I can remember I just finished a book that really did nothing for me. It is a series Western, a type of book I don’t think I’ve ever read before, that I picked up on a whim. It’s called Riders From Long Pines, by Ralph Cotton. Parts of it were fun enough — I finished it, so it couldn’t have been that bad — but at times I was scratching my head in wonder that it was even published. I suspect it just fits a formula that gives a certain demographic exactly what they want. What surprised me most is that the book is actually the 22nd installment of a series by Cotton that focuses on Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack and his (hot) shotgun-toting partner, Maria. The surprise is that these are a couple of the most wooden characters I’ve ever read. But hey, the guy’s published a shit-ton of books, so who am I to judge.
I don’t want to point and laugh at Ranger Sam and trusty (hot) Maria anyway. I want to talk about the primary villain of the story, Stanton “Buckshot” Pike. When we meet Buckshot in the beginning, he is part of a gang of outlaws robbing a bank. He sees Ranger Sam and trusty (hot) Maria ready to apprehend them, so he abandons his companions and goes on the lam. The plot point that keeps Sam & Maria in the story is their pursuit of the criminal. Buckshot later joins up with another group of outlaws, who then decide to rob a stagecoach. That endeavor goes to shit as well, but when some cattle drovers come along shortly after, forcing Buckshot to hide in the weeds, and find some money in the stage’s secret compartment, we are off and running on the main theme/plot of the book.
The thing with ‘ole Buckshot is we have no idea why he is an outlaw. Presumably he’s just a “bad” man, just like Ranger Sam (who comes off as a supremely-dull Dudley freakin’ Do-Right) is simply a “good” man, and Maria is simply “hot” (and also Mexican, as she tends to use the occasional word or two of Spanish here and there while being hot and waving her guns around). Every opportunity Buckshot has to be mean, he is. A dog is struggling to free itself from the wreckage of the stagecoach? He kills it. A farmer and his wife offer to put him up, thinking he’s actually a sheriff? Buckshot kills the farmer and his dog, rapes the wife then kills her too. It’s just one dastardly deed after another, to the point where he is so yawningly predictable that I didn’t care one way or the other for what he was going to do to whom. When he meets his demise at the end (via the fangs of the dog he killed at the outset, who actually wasn’t dead but is nursed back to health by Ranger Sam), I couldn’t care less. As a result of the overall lameness of the villain, I couldn’t care less about Sam and Maria at the end either.
Now a better villain who maybe wasn’t so friggin’ vile all the time, and perhaps adding a smudge or two to the heroes, would have made the same exact plot much, much more interesting. Ain’t that right, Al?