Author: James Carlos Blake
Mood: If everything in your life has been way too vanilla lately and you want a real page-turner that’s fast and dirty and violent but still well-written.
The Pistoleer: A Novel of John Wesley Hardin is fiction that reads like extremely entertaining non-fiction, which in turn reads like some of the most entertaining Western fiction I’ve read.
I had to keep reminding myself that it’s not a TRUE account of the deadly outlaw’s life. At the same time, so much of it is actually more fact than fantasy. This is my favourite kind of historical fiction, because you come away a little bit educated – but without having to suffer through dull, dry history books.
If you like character-driven stories that simultaneously romanticize the Old West and highlight its depraved ugliness, this might be the novel for you.
John Wesley Hardin was an outlaw and gunfighter with a HUGE reputation. He killed his first man at 15 years old, and kind of just kept killing until he became the most wanted man in Texas. This is his story – sort of.
In The Pistoleer: A Novel of James Wesley Hardin, author James Carlos Blake doesn’t give you a take on Hardin’s story in the gunman’s own words, nor does he give you a version told by a close friend or family member. Instead, he weaves a seamless narrative of Hardin’s life that rolls out in the perspectives of strangers, one after another, chapter by chapter. The only common thread is that they once encountered this man.
It’s a unique style of writing that’s rarely used in Westerns, and it works really well here. Some reviews complain about it, but for me, Blake’s characters are mostly well-written and feel distinct from each other in language and tone. I say ‘mostly’ because like many male authors, he’s not great at writing women and most of the female leads here are vapid sex objects. But if you’re not enjoying the character currently at the helm of the story, you know it’s going to switch to someone else pretty quick.
Some of the narrators only meet Hardin in passing, like the midwife who delivered him as a baby and has a LOT to say about the amount of blood. Others spend considerable time in his company and give you a juicy chapter full of action. You get men who rode with him, hid him from the law, pursued him, attempted to interview him, or just partied hard in his company.
And although many of the narrators themselves are fictional, the majority of the other characters they talk about, such as Hardin’s friends, relatives, and enemies, ARE based on real people. So the chapters deliver a heaping serving of actual events that have been corroborated by witnesses over the years.
The quirk is that because it’s all heavily biased, first-person storytelling, and because everyone including Hardin himself had a habit of massively exaggerating his deeds (or outright lying), you finish the book realizing that you don’t know as much as you felt like you did when you were in the thick of it. He remains a piece of Old West history and folklore.
At times The Pistoleer is super crass. You read several vivid descriptions of John Wesley getting busy with the ladies, which at least one reviewer on Goodreads called “porn” and deducted a whole star. Being a novel about a famous killer, there are of course also quasi-graphic descriptions of various killings… which somehow pale in comparison to a single chapter that describes him being tortured in prison.
But for me, the paperback is massive and the coarser subject matter is balanced with so much other action that it never feels gratuitous. Hardin legit DID a lot of shocking things before he was even 25 years old, things that lend well to graphic storytelling. If you want a PG Western, maybe don’t read one about a notorious killer.
Hardin actually claimed he never shot a man for any reason other than self defence, a claim repeated throughout this book by everyone who takes his side, to the point where it feels a lot like that episode of South Park where they keep shouting “it’s coming right for us!” to justify shooting things.
Unfortunately, with Hardin being a Southerner and given the region he roamed in his heyday, the majority of the characters are former Confederates and sympathizers who idolize or at least respect his actions. So… there’s definitely some era-appropriate but still uncomfortable racism, especially toward Mexicans and Black people. At the same time, Hardin kills inmates who harm a queer man who nursed him back to health. It’s really a mixed bag in that sense.
I’d never read anything about Hardin before reading The Pistoleer (I know, I can’t believe it either!), so after finishing it I had to check to see how much was true. If you’re a history buff who already knows a lot about Hardin, you’ll appreciate the thorough research and attention to detail in these pages. If this is your first look at his depraved life – enjoy the wild ride.