According to Booklist, “The name Max Brand is synonymous with Western novels.” And it’s certainly true that Brand, along with Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, stamped an indelible impression on the Western genre that can still be felt rippling through the work of today’s modern wordslingers.
The man born Frederick Schiller Faust went by numerous pen names, including George Owen Baxter, Evan Evans, George Evans, David Manning, John Frederick, Peter Morland, George Challis, and, of course, Max Brand. And, of the 30,000,000 words he is said to have written over his lifetime under these names, I’ve read enough to know that his talent was unique and justifiably trailblazing, including two of his Brand novels The Long Chance and The City in the Sky.
The Long Chance is about Sam Cross, a young man who eliminates people for his employer within the confines of the law. The local sheriff opens Cross’s eyes to the fact he has very little respect in town and, in fact, is nothing better than a ruthless killer. Deciding the sheriff is right, he leaves town to reform his ways and rebuild his esteem in a series of unrelated adventures that proves he can be a man without a gun.
The main plot begins when Charles Granville saves Cross from being stabbed in the back. Cross realizes he owes Granville his life and agrees to an unusual request to impersonate Charles to the wealthy Granville family. Cross isn’t given a clear reason why the man is looking for an impersonator, but, his sense of adventure kicks in as he rides to the Granville estate.
Many of the characters are stereotypical and the plot has a worn Martin Guerre feel to it. The fact that Cross easily assimilates himself into the family is a little implausible for my taste. However, the book is a brisk read with plenty of action.
The City in the Sky features Les Tarron, a ne’er-do-well young man who lounges about the family ranch and barely lifts a finger to help his folks. Like the Brand protagonist from Chance, Tarron seems to be a Western Superman. He has incredible strength, can track a man with the best of them and is a deadly shot with his Winchester. He just happens to be a bored young man — give him a cell phone and he would fit in well in the 21st century.
A posse in need of help is duly impressed with Tarron’s tracking skills and enlists him to find a man named Dorn. More out of sport than anything else, Tarron agrees to help, but just when they are closing in on Dorn, the young man switches sides and steers Dorn away from the killers. Dorn turns out to be a man on a mysterious errand, one so secretive that when he dies, Tarron carries on with piecemeal information and woefully ignorant of what awaits him at La Paz, the city he’s searching for.
Most City chapters begin with a bang and end in a cliffhanger lest somebody nods off, but there is little danger of that. The only downside is the story requires a suspension of reality in order to believe a young man barely out of his teens can elude hundreds of hired killers when he walks directly in their midst on more than one occasion. However, this is not a knock but, like a Rambo flick, one needs to forget plausibility and just enjoy.
Impressed with the writing and intrigued by the author, I ordered the Max Brand biography The Big Westerner by Robert Easton. When I initially opened the package that contained a first edition, an all-too-familiar adage popped in mind, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The psychedelic colors of the 1970 cover seemed an odd choice for a writer of Westerns, but after delving into the pages, Easton conveyed an informative, honest portrait of a man many consider the greatest western storyteller.
Brand was born Frederick Faust in Seattle in 1892. From the very beginning, his life was surrounded by poverty and death. Faust would remember the embarrassment he endured as his father sent him to the local store without money to purchase gas for the family. The store clerk would grant the loan after giving the child a hard time. The impression left was deep, and the desire to succeed was planted.
Years later, when he was making thousands from royalties, he is described by Easton as a kid in a candy store. He would buy lavish items like a $1500 Oriental rug or a silver coffee pot for his wife. Never forgetting his poverty-ridden background, these spending sprees were complemented by his compassion to help poor souls whose paths he crossed. His wife, Dorothy, a generous woman herself, was at times dismayed with the extent of his generosity.
Faust’s parents, who died when he was still a child, had given him a love for books. While being shuffled between homes of relatives or friends, he’d escape into the world of medieval romantic literature — the King Arthur legend was a particular favorite. He also developed a life-long love for poetry, and many of his verses were based on the medieval period.
Faust attended the University of California, where he became somewhat of a rebellious figure. He told the president of the school, “Ideals are bunk. Only action matters. Why should I worry about ideals as long as I can have ideas?” He was denied a degree because of unexcused absence from classes, but he felt the real reason was because he had crossed swords with the president and, in his mind, had won. Though humiliating, this drove him to justify himself in the face of heavy odds.
Writing success came quickly. Faust began selling stories to the pulp magazines, including All-Story Weekly and Argosy Magazine, while still in his early twenties. For Faust, this was just to kill time until he could write poetry, his first love. For this reason, he created pen names for the various genres. Not to mention, the name Faust was as a little too German for most publishers during WWI.
What fascinates me most, as a writer, is Faust’s incredible output. He wrote 1-1.5 million words every year for the pulps and slicks. By the time of his death, it’s been estimated he had written more than 30 million published words. Certainly that’s an accomplishment by any standard, but, sadly, he never achieved his dream of being a successful poet.
A running theme through much of Faust’s life was his desire to enlist and see combat. He seemed convinced that to fight and even die in battle was valiant, similar to the legends he had read as a child. Despite being a middle-aged man with a bad heart, he became a war correspondent during WWII. As a popular celebrity at the time, he was a favorite of the enlisted men. In 1944, while traveling with American soldiers in Italy, Faust was wounded by shrapnel. He directed the medics to take care of others who he said were in greater need than himself. The writer who had written hundreds of heroic tales of courage and strength had himself died a hero.
This only scratches the surface of an exceptional bio. Whether you are a western fan or not, you are likely to enjoy the story of a man that Kirkus Reviews lauded as “…the Shakespeare of the Western range.”