Halfway through Elmore Leonard’s 1972 novel Forty Lashes Less One, Everett Manly, the fill-in warden at Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona is trying to get two convicts to find some purpose in life.
One is Harold Jackson, a black former Marine who, during the Spanish-American War, walked away from his unit in Cuba and was locked up for desertion. Later, he was convicted of murder.
The other is Raymond San Carlos, an Indian-Mexican whose father fought with Geronimo and who is imprisoned for killing a cowboy who, once too often, called him a “red greaser.”
Mr. Manly, a longtime Protestant preacher, is explaining to the two men that St. Paul — “a Jew-boy” — was able to put up with great hardships because he had found a purpose in life, serving God.
“You boys think you’ve experienced hardships, listen, I’m going to read you something. From two Corinthians, ‘Brethren, gladly you put up with fools, because you are wise…’ Let me skip down. “But whereas any man is bold…Are they ministers of Christ?’ Here it is ‘…in many more labors, in lashes above measure, often exposed to death. From the Jews’ — listen to this — ‘five times I received forty lashes less one. Thrice I was scourged, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was adrift on the sea; on journeyings often, in perils from floods, in perils from robbers, in perils from my own nation…in labor and hardships, in many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.’ ”
His point, Mr. Manly explains, is that Paul achieved strength through his weakness and God’s grace.
The two men don’t show much interest in Paul. But apparently that idea of strength through weakness bounces around in their heads, and, eventually, they realize that, even though, as an African-American and an Indian-Mexican, they are seen as less than, weaker than, white men, they come from warrior stock.
They come to realize that, by harkening back to their roots, they can regain this warrior mentality, and that’s what they do, with the unwitting help of Mr. Manly and other prison officials and other inmates.
They become warriors who are able to walk 30 miles in a day with little or no water and to throw spears accurately at long distances.
They accomplish much despite — and, in a roundabout way, because of — a prison bully named Frank Shelby who’s cornered the market on contraband and is sitting pretty, coddled by prisoners and guards.
Set in 1909, Forty Lashes Less One is, like many Elmore Leonard novels, a story of comeuppance.
Shelby gets his due at the hands of Harold and Ray in the end. And there’s another nice twist in the final pages of the book.
What’s missing, though, is the snappy, humorous dialogue between characters that is a feature of most of Leonard’s later novels.
This book is more of a straight-forward adventure story, suitable for being made into a movie like many of Leonard’s other stories and novels.
And, it must be said, even without such repartee, it’s a fun, satisfying book, well worth the read.
Patrick T. Reardon