I didn’t know much about Jesse James. When I heard his name, I would think of the wild west and bank robberies and Billy the Kid. That was the extent of my knowledge before reading this book. I am not a historical reader. Don’t get me wrong, I love history. But I think history is more interesting for me when it is visual. I realize this trait is feeble. I went into this book hoping for the best but expecting something that would bore me to death. Essentially my expectations were correct…and at the same time, I came to realize that this book is not getting the credit it deserves.
What do I mean by that? To put it simply, this novel in its brilliance was boring. When I first began reading I found the characters and situations to be fascinating. Ron Hansen is a brilliant writer. His characterizations and descriptions resemble that of classic novelists such as John Steinbeck. In fact I was reminded of Steinbeck while reading and upon looking over the rave reviews for this book in the inside cover I saw that someone else made the same connection. Because of this comparison and Hansen’s brilliant writing, I find it odd that this book isn’t required reading in classrooms. I think that if I had to read this book again then I would only do it if I was taking a class on it. Taking a class would help me understand the story more. I think this was one of the issues with the text while I was reading. I don’t want to say issue holds the book back but it will hold back certain readers, me being one of them. At its heart, this book is about Jesse James and his gang and gang stories are always formatted a certain way that confuses the heck out of me. For example, I recently watched a movie called American Hustle and I could not grasp the plot for the life of me. Yeah, I’m that bad. It was about a con-man and also mixed the mafia into the picture with confusing deals which kept me from enjoying the film and therefore understanding the film. Obviously this is a fault of my own intellect but I have a hard time enjoying a story when I can’t comprehend half of it. This was a major downfall for me as a reader.
The writing, as I said, was incredible. Hansen is slowly but surely becoming one of my favorite writers as I really enjoyed his other novel, Mariette in Ecstasy. While the story went over my head, the writing did not. If my rating was based on the writing alone, this would be a five star review. The psychological study on the relationship between Jesse James and Bob Ford is also enough to give this book five stars. The book’s title is really not the focus of the novel but the climax. A big theme the book tackles is fame in America and the obsessive nature in which people treat the rich and famous. This theme came across the most in the final part of the novel after Jesse’s death.
Overall, this book clashed for me between the excellent themes and writing style versus my lack of understanding con-men stories. I still feel really silly saying that. Toward the end of the novel I was so ready to be done and move on and I just felt bitter about the experience. So I will give this book 3 out of 5 stars.