"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Furies: A novel by Niven Busch


Death and passion in New Mexico


Niven Busch was an interesting fellow. Editor of Time magazine (co-founded by his cousin Briton Hadden), he changed careers and went out to Hollywood, where he became famous for writing in 1946 the film noir screenplay of The Postman Always Rings Twice. For us Westernistas, though, he has far greater claims to fame than that. He wrote or co-wrote nine Western movies from 1940 to 1955, including some great ones: I would cite in particular the William Wyler-directed The Westerner and Raoul Walsh 's Pursued. Two Westerns, King Vidor's Duel in the Sun and Anthony Mann's The Furies, were based on his novels.
 
Niven Busch in 1944
 
The Furies: a novel came out in 1948. O wondrous year! Not only did 1948 produce some of the greatest Western movies of all time (the likes of Red River, Fort Apache and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and some of the best B-Westerns too (Yellow Sky, The Man from Colorado, Coroner Creek), not only that, I say, but it was also the year of the birth of the great Jeff Arnold, Western blogger extraordinaire. And as if that weren’t enough, The Furies was published.

Worth a read
 
Since The Carrington Incident (1941), his successful first novel, Busch had produced Duel in the Sun (1944), They Dream of Home (1944) and Day of the Conquerors (1946). If not quite a household name, he was certainly well known in both the literary world and that of Hollywood. The late 40s were the years of films noirs and Westerns were not exempt. Busch wrote the outstanding Raoul Walsh-directed Pursued, starring Robert Mitchum and Mrs. Busch, Teresa Wright. The Furies, Busch’s novel of the year after, is also distinctly noirish in tone.

It is the story of Vance Jefford, daughter of the larger-than-life New Mexico rancher and businessman TC Jefford. On one level the book operates as a non-Western, a rather melodramatic tale of love and passion with a slight family ‘saga’ tinge, and this is certainly true of the first hundred pages, but from chapter 11 on it becomes a Western alright. That’s when the murderous deaf-mute Mexican ranch foreman Quintinella, a great Western creation, gathers his gunmen and drives poor settlers from the Jefford range.

Vance first dismisses her lover, the ranch hand Juan, because her absent father is returning and she senses he would not approve. Then she takes up with a charismatic gambler, Curley Darragh, who has set up the Legal Tender saloon and gambling house, watched over by the hunchback shotgun guard Hunchy. Darragh is another good Western character, being gutsy, handsome and successful but he is also of doubtful integrity and too greedy for money. After a climactic meeting between Curley and TC, Vance sends him packing too.

Then her father’s mistress, Flo Burnett, appears on the scene and Vance’s jealous fears are realized when the hated Flo becomes her stepmother. Attempted murder ensues and Vance flees back to Juan, who takes her in, and they are married, much to daddy’s disgust. Juan is a part-time cattle thief and the sinister Quintinella, with TC’s tacit approval, entraps him, and hangs him from a wagon post. Vance vows revenge, and she’s willing to go back to Curley to get it…

Slightly pot-boilerish in tone (as was Duel in the Sun) and with some quite daring scenes and language for its day, this novel carries you along to the climax. You want to know how it all turns out and without spoiling your enjoyment I can tell you that death by gunfire is a part of the dénouement.

Feminists may like this novel because the central chracter is a strong, determined and intelligent woman. On the other hand, they may dislike the way that throughout she defines herself in terms of the three men in her life, her husband, her lover and, above all, her father.

Busch bought a ranch in northern California, divorced Ms. Wright and married twice more, and became a leading light on the San Francisco literary scene. He became a professor at the University of California. He died from heart failure in 1991 at the age of eighty-eight. You could probably safely skip Duel in the Sun but do give The Furies a try.

 

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