Elmore Leonard’s first novel The Bounty Hunters was published in 1953, just eight years after World War II, and it was part of a movement in American arts to reevaluate the national myths.
On the surface level, the war seemed to endorse the rightness of U.S. ideals and actions.
Nonetheless, artists, such as those in movies, painting and novels, were expressing what might be called the Great Ambiguity.
Yes, the United States fought for freedom and democracy against the soul-crushing, murderous Nazis and their allies. Still, there is much that America and American soldiers did in battle that unsettled the consciences of thoughtful people.
“By white standards”
With The Bounty Hunters, Leonard is setting forth the subject matter that he will deal with more than 40 other novels as well as short stories and screenplays.
First, there is Leonard’s affinity for those on the edges of society, an affinity for the zest and piquancy that other cultures and other approaches to the questions of living bring to the communal life.
In this novel, it’s expressed in his openness to the Apache way of life which, in American myth of that time, was seen as debased, pagan and inhuman. By contrast, Leonard’s central character David Flynn, a cavalry scout, sees things differently as he sits with an Apache leader named Soldado:
A man is some things and he is not others. A Mimbre Apache is not a fashion plate. He is ragged and dirty and has the odor of an unwashed dog and at night in his rancheria drinks tizwin until it puts him to sleep or sends him after a woman.
He has many faults — by white standards. But he is a guerrilla fighter, and in his own element he is unbeatable.
“Worst of the three”
In the early 1950s, the American script — “white standards” — didn’t accept the Apaches as equals nor their culture as legitimate. Leonard, through Flynn, saw it differently.
Along the same lines as the acceptance of others, Leonard expresses a recognition that white Americans were as capable of evil as others.
The bad guys in this novel come in three groups:
- the Apaches who will torture you and kill you slowly if they capture you;
- the rurales, the loosely organized rural police corps, made up mainly of former (or present) bandits who will oppress you; and
- the American bounty hunters, who are paid money for bringing in the scalps of Apaches — and those of Mexicans that they pass off as Indian hair.
Flynn and the young man who becomes his friend, Lieutenant Regis Bowers, are talking about these groups, and Bowers admits:
“I’m trying to make up my mind who’s the worst of the three.”
But those three groups aren’t the only bad guys.
Two others are American — the vengeful, cowardly Col. A.R. L. Deneen, Bowers’s superior, and an angry freelance outlaw who joins the bounty hunters, Frank Rellis.
In the final third of the novel, each of the main bad guys gets his deathly recompense — Deneen, Rellis, the bounty hunter leader Curt Lazair and Lt. Lamas Duro, the commander of the rurales.
Soldado survives, but his warriors are defeated and chased away by a force led by Bowers.
This might have been the era of the Great Ambiguity, but it was not yet possible for an artist to create a work in which the Apaches win.
Code of behavior
The growing friendship of Flynn and Bowers is another of Leonard’s themes that is taken up here and many times in his later works. Flynn does have a romantic interest, but that’s off to the side of the story.
Front and center are the two men and their growing respect for each other.
Another theme is confusion. Everyone is misreading situations and other people, even Flynn and Bowers, although less so.
That may be because they operate with a code of behavior. For Flynn, that code involves looking very clearly at the present challenges and not worrying too much about what might come later.
This impresses Bowers who, at one point, ruminates:
That’s a good way to look at things, but it takes some doing. Saying, well, we’re here; we might as well do the job.
That’s the easy way to look at things. No it isn’t. It’s the hard way…when you don’t have any business being here.
“Even the bugs”
An essential element of this is a willingness to look, to see, broadly — and to act.
There is a curiosity at the heart of this willingness, as well as a recognition that, in this barren land, what you don’t know can kill you.
As they moved on, working their way down, Bowers said suddenly, “You’ve got the biggest capacity for doing things of any man I know.”
“It’s a big country. Everything in it is big,” Flynn said. “The sun’s big, the mountains, the deserts, even the bugs. You got to strain to keep up with it, that’s all.”
A meaty novel
In some ways, The Bounty Hunters is bumpier than most of Leonard’s later novels.
Things get a bit too complicated at the end, and much of the final battle is told from the point of view of Flynn who is watching from the sidelines. But these are minor critiques.
The Bounty Hunters is a meaty novel, and a strong first installment of what would be Leonard’s rich treasure of fiction.
Patrick T. Reardon