No Second Wind
by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.
Reviewed by Martin Kich
A cursory appraisal of No Second Wind might lead one to the judgment that the Guthrie's Western mysteries ought to be categorized with other "entertainments." For, on its surface, the novel might seem more an exercise in misdirection than an incisive and substantial exploration of significant themes. Superficially, the novel does center on three, progressively narrowed conflicts.
Initially, the suspense derives from a conflict between two conventionally antagonistic groups. The ranchers who do business in Midbury, Montana--and who have the sympathetic support of the townspeople--square off against the strip-mining interests who have been buying up leases from the less prosperous ranchers--threatening, in effect, much of the ranchland in the area. The strip-mining interests have, characteristically, fanned resentment by bringing in work crews and machinery before the Bureau of Land Management has officially approved the mining. Thus, Guthrie initially establishes the potent, if familiar, broad conflict between rapacious corporate outsiders and environmentally concerned natives. But, after an inconclusive town meeting and a transparent attempt to bribe Sheriff Charleston, the corporate officers of Energy Associates, the strip-mining company, disappear from the scene.
After their departure from the town (and from the narrative), the conflict becomes more bare-knuckled. The most hot-headed of the ranchers become the focal point of a mob that includes--again, familiarly--the more transient elements of the community--ranchhands and casual laborers from around town. They meet in a bar in town to work themselves up to driving the mining crew out of town. The crew is an equally volatile group. They justifiably feel isolated and vulnerable in their trailer camp at the edge of town, where loud televisions only partially mute the growing complaints of their wives. With little else to do, they drink too much at the camp-saloon called the Chicken Shack. At first, they seem typed in a brawny loudmouth named Tony Coletti. Yet, even this level of conflict might seem rather quickly dissipated. Sheriff Charleston calms the ranchers' mob, and, at about the same time, Jason Beard, his deputy, kicks in Coletti's face while arresting him as a wife-beater. The crew's foreman, Tim Reagan, emerges then as a reasonable, basically good-natured representative of their attitudes and interests. At this point, it is very clear that no one among the crew is responsible for the two deaths by gunshot that have heightened the tensions.
When the major suspect in the first shooting becomes the victim of the second, the resolution of the mystery narrows to the revelation of an old man's senile mistake. Correspondingly, the conflict seems to narrow to Jason Beard's romantic dilemma in confronting the old man's granddaughter, with whom he has fallen in love. In sum, all of the preliminary conflict between the interests of the ranchers and those of the strip-miners might seem finally just window-dressing for a cleverly plotted but thematically limited story.
Of course, such a judgment would be based on a cursory impression of the novel. It would ignore the considerable subtlety with which Guthrie treats his materials. To appreciate this subtlety, we can consider, first, his characterization of the corporate officers of Energy Associates. Clearly, they are motivated by little more than profits; clearly, they are so unprincipled in their business dealings that they believe the easiest method of insuring profits is to make others financially dependent on their success, through lease payments to the most desperate ranchers and bribes offered to civic figures such as Sheriff Charleston. Without any mitigating details, Guthrie stereotypes them as rapacious outsiders. Yet, significantly, he does so less thoroughly than he might have done. Because they disappear from the scene rather early in the novel, Guthrie avoids the sort of rather formulaic confrontation we might be expecting. It is an indication of Guthrie's more complex view of his materials that, on a corporate level, the strip-mining interests remain largely an impersonal menace, one which cannot be confronted in the street at an appointed hour with all the ritualized behavior required by a frontier code. In essence, Guthrie establishes as a premise that ranchers in areas such as this surrounding Midbury are ultimately powerless against the mining interests. The key irony seems to be that those interests, rather than being represented by the shrewdly ruthless power brokers of the popular imagination, are represented instead by men whose guileless methods amount to banality.
Predictably, the frustrated ranchers turn their anger against the work crew. In fact, the gathering of a mob at the Bar Star is very reminiscent of the now prototypical opening chapters of The Ox-Bow Incident in at least several ways. In both cases, a spell of milder weather has a significant emotional effect on the men: having been driven indoors by long stretches of unbearable winter weather, they emerge restlessly into each other's company, and they confuse their restlessness with moral urgency when an apparently criminal killing brings long-standing tensions to what seems like a crisis. Likewise, in both cases, the mob mentality is instigated by men on the fringes of the community, men who project much broader grudges about their stations in life into tense situations that do not affect them directly. Clark's Monty Smith and Guthrie's Jim Burke, an auto mechanic, are very similar characters in terms of their functions.
Beyond these similarities, however, there are some obvious differences in the courses events take in the two novels and, perhaps, some less obvious differences in the implications of those events. First, Clark's novel is set in a region and at a time in which the law still moves about on horseback. The legal consequences of mob action are not represented immediately enough for the warnings of a man like Davies to be considered impersonally. In contrast, in Guthrie's novel, the law has become a central institution of the community, one on which its people depend. Almost in passing, Guthrie touches on the jurisdictional conflicts between the Sheriff's department and the new city police department. This seemingly extraneous sub-plot of sorts serves to emphasize how, even in this relatively small and isolated community, the administration of justice has become professionalized. When Sheriff Charleston confronts the mob in the Bar Star, he is not simply a strong lawman with loyal deputies facing down would-be vigilantes; rather, he represents the inevitable and ultimately impersonal legal force that will be brought against men who ignore the considerable consequences of lawlessness. The mob in the Bar Star disperses because the risk in acting as a mob clearly outweighs any threat posed by the mining crew.
Second, despite all of the nagging questions that might stall the vigilante posse in Clark's novel, there is at least some chance that the posse will catch up with the alleged killers of Kincaid and, in lynching them, resolve the long-standing tensions caused by the cattle rustling. If Kincaid were indeed dead and if the men lynched were the cattle rustlers, the mob would have achieved a practical end, no matter how extra-legal their means. In contrast, in Guthrie's novel, there is little on a practical level to be gained from driving the work crew out of Midbury. At best, such action would serve only to buy time to fight the mining interests politically and legally, and because some of the ranchers have already sold leases to their land to the mining company, the odds seem very much stacked in favor of the mining interests. Significantly, although Sheriff Charleston clearly recognizes and opposes the irrevocable changes that mining will wreak on the landscape and the community, he does not hesitate to advise Mrs. Cleaver that it is in her own best interests to lease her land to the mining company.
Granting that there is no practical benefit to be gained by driving the mining crew out of town, the mob might still have the emotional impetus to do so if the crew were more directly antagonistic, more directly a threat to the community--if they imposed themselves on the town, for instance, in the nightmarish manner of those biker gangs in the B-movies. But, the miners are just as frustrated as the ranchers. If the ranchers' lands and livelihoods are in jeopardy, so, too, are the miners' livelihoods and even more meager personal resources. In fact, if the mining company were to lay off the crew, one senses that they would lack the financial resources to move on--that they would be stranded in their trailers on the outskirts of Midbury. Guthrie succeeds in emphasizing the irony that the ranchers and the miners are equally vulnerable economically. The miners maintain their distance from the community because they are risking not only their jobs, but also their safety and that of their families if they provoke the town to some sort of mob action against them.
Guthrie's characterization of Tony Coletti indirectly serves to support these points. Coletti, on the surface, is the personification of the "ugly" outsider. But, significantly, even he is aggressively confrontational only within the miners' camp. His first fight with Jason Beard occurs in the Chicken Shack, and his second, in his own trailer where he has been taking out his frustrations on his wife. Except for Jason Beard and Ike Doolittle, none of the townspeople or ranchers seem to have or to take the opportunity to see the miners at their worst in Coletti. Furthermore, Guthrie suggests a nice parallel between Jim Burke, the auto mechanic who can gather a mob but not provoke it to action, and Coletti, the brawny miner who likes to strike an intimidating pose but cannot bully anyone but his wife.
All of this brings us then to consider the manner in which the story is resolved. After Chuck Cleaver is killed, it takes just a little ingenuity on Sheriff Charleston's part to realize that the answers to many related questions can be found readily in Cleaver's pickup truck. Cleaver's ingenious schemes to drive the mining crew out of Midbury are shown to have been clearly more fanciful than practical. Having thrown a brick through a window in town in order to provoke the townspeople against the crew, he felt guilty enough that he planned to pay for the damages anonymously. Having tried to shoot out the neon sign at the Chicken Shack in order to intimidate the miners, he killed not even a miner but, instead, a bartender with a ricochet. Having imitated a cultist slaughtering of an animal in order to terrorize the miners and their families, he succeeded only in wasting beef he might have sold. And having rigged up an elaborate sound system to suggest that a pack of wolves was prowling the countryside, he was himself mistaken for a wolf by a senile old man and shot dead. The absurdity of it all--especially given the fact that the mining company will probably not be driven off even if its crew is--would end the novel on a jarringly tragi-comic note if not for the balancing pathos in Guthrie's emphasis on Cleaver's basic decency and on the deadening loneliness that has characterized his marriage.
Likewise, the tragi-comedy in old man Dutton's shooting Cleaver is effectively balanced by the pathos in his coming down with pneumonia as a direct consequence of having wandered outside to shoot wolves. Interestingly, the end of the budding romance between Jason Beard and Anita Dutton occurs indirectly because of the conflict between the ranchers and the miners. In a more melodramatic story, one might expect that their romance would be ruined by their taking somehow incompatible positions on the issue. But, here, their conflict is more pathetically circumstantial than tragic or especially dramatic. In solving the mystery of Cleaver's death, Jason Beard has made certain, given the force of the law, that old man Dutton will be committed to a rest home. That circumstance alone is enough to kill his romance with Anita Dutton. The bald ironies in Cleaver's death are, thus, balanced against a more subtle and profound irony: although none of the actions of the characters can ultimately change the fact that strip-mining will come to this rangeland, lives are changed in ways that have nothing directly to do with ranching or mining. Moreover, although the strip mines will irrevocably change the landscape, there is something fatalistic and typically Western in the ironic circumstances that here mark that transition.
In this sense, the hunting parties that go out in the sub-zero cold to hunt phantom wolves provide a focal motif for the expression of Guthrie's themes. There was a time when wolf packs posed a very real danger to the ranchers and their herds. In fact, the handling of the incident in which Jason Beard is stranded in the middle of nowhere by a failed generator serves to emphasize that the wolves could still be as dangerous as the cold has always been. (Though several characters comment that they have never known of wolves' attacking a man, that wolves will run from a man's scent just as they will run from headlights, there are plenty of pioneer accounts that suggest that, at least before the advent of headlights, wolves were not especially put off by the human scent.) But, the fact remains that the wolves have been long gone from this country--gone the way of the beaver, the buffalo, the nomadic tribes, the plowed-up prairie grasses, and the top soils blown away in vast clouds. After Cleaver's death, one of the hunters admits that, before long, the hunting parties somehow knew there were no wolves but continued the hunting because they enjoyed their camaraderie. Ironically, then, the wolf hunts might be seen as a less risky alternative to a mob action against the crew of miners. A finer irony is that the sound of howling wolves terrorizes most of the townspeople even more than the prospect of strip-mining disturbs them, emphasizing in a very real sense how the history of the West continues to overshadow its future.