Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-1-9826-0105-8, 304 pgs., $27.99
June 16, 2020
Night, Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne warned, is but the shadow of light, and life just the shadow of death. That, in one breath, is the finely drawn dilemma James Wade turns over and over like a precious, light-refracting, darkness-harboring gemstone that is All Things Left Wild.
The tale is a classic morality play of good and evil, strength and softness, vengeance and justice, law and vigilantism, set against a beautiful, sweeping backdrop of the American Southwest. In Longpine, a tiny wart of a town, dilletante cattleman “Randy the Dandy” Dawson can barely sit a horse much less defend his property or family, readers discover, piecing together narrative fragments like shards of mirror glass from the story’s fractured, disturbing outset. Dawson’s only son has been murdered by opportunistic, wannabe rustlers who believe, as a Mexican lawman drives home to Dawson, “There is no fault, senór—only targets and choices.”
The outlaw Bentleys flee into Mexico on horseback, enduring extreme weather, little food, a blistering, capricious trail fraught with murderous desperados, and refugees fleeing ahead of revolutionary death squads. All of these eventually convince the brothers to lose themselves deep in Texas. Dawson, reluctantly shamed into vengeance by stonehearted Joanna, gives clumsy chase.
Wade employs a tricky but effective writing pattern that puts readers into murdering fugitive Caleb Bentley’s head and, alternately, into a third-person viewpoint of aggrieved, vengeful, woefully defenseless Dawson. The unorthodox narrative technique works well to bring readers into the gradually unfolding tragedy, distinctly divided between the guilty gloom of the Bentleys and the withering light of Dawson’s bumbling ride into vigilante darkness.
This is artful fiction drawn with a deft, patient hand. The writing style is an ideal mashup of Larry McMurtry’s burnish and Cormac McCarthy’s grit, letting the reader live the fear, pain, and guilt yet nonetheless taste the wind-driven West Texas dust and smell the sweaty horse withers. Wade’s writerly skill is topnotch and white hot in the visual, visceral quality of his description that breathes the landscape to life as a major character in the story:
Mara stirred behind him and what colors did appear, and they were drawn fleeting across a makeshift sky in hues of purple and pink. The dusk is provisional, always, but no more so than the day or even the life. And when a life ends, there is still the changing sky. As when the dusk turns to night there are still the living, and neither depending on the other yet both existing and unsure of how to do anything save carry on.
Wade’s aesthetic visuality and lyric metaphor exemplify the Latin maxim, ut pictura poesis, poetry like pictures, and Swinburne’s poetic Greek execution of ekphrasis: “word pictures,” powerful, vibrant, unforgettable. The panorama is stark but breathtaking, tangible, livable imagery layered with contemplative configurations of mortality, vengeance, guilt, and damnation in the polar opposites that are wild-eyed Shelby and brooding Caleb. There’s a darkness that waits to swallow us, reader, writer, story, and all in an unfolding vision of violence, pain, and doom, as we fight down the Mexican lawman’s twisted truth: “We are all killers, my friend. Even those who have not yet pulled the trigger.”
What Dawson lacks in personal mettle, he finds and enlists in Charlotte, no stranger to violence. Fleeing justice, Caleb plots while Shelby acts, then Caleb tries to refigure the cardinal points of guilt, remorse, penance, and vengeance and find a way, not out of mortal darkness, but ever deeper yet, accounting and atoning for what he’s done:
Still we forged onward, as if ours were the first world, as if we alone by our very existence are inimitable across the vastness of the universe, and in doing so we elevate our own creations to undeserving positions of power and importance. And for all that is ennobled there are those left lowly, those who are bound to carry upon their bent spines the worries of a burning world—a world which will rise again from the ashes and bury the transgressions shallow, in graves overflowing, and set about the search for a new fire, so all might burn once more.
Of course, as in any classic Western—and this one is the most rewarding I’ve ever read—there is a showdown, a reckoning, and a cataclysmic price paid by both avenger and those upon whom vengeance is taken. Dawson, like the reader, would like to believe himself incapable of the horrific violence he seeks to avenge. Yet eventually, inexorably, Dawson admits to the Texas Rangers, “It’s not the world that needs taming, gentlemen, it’s us.”
There’s the Faustian lightning flash of horrible clarity that leaves the reader, like those who ride off afterwards, wondering what, if any, beliefs can be held without fear and ultimately, horrible loss. Life, penned in Wade’s remarkable hand, truly is, as Swinburne foretold, aught but the shadow of death.
All Things left Wild is a magnificent, beautifully drawn montage of contemplation, lightning-fast action, uncertainty and inevitability, pain, enormous loss, empty gain, an extraordinary adventure lived, and certainly, in retrospect, one not to be missed.
James Wade is an award-winning fiction author with twenty short stories published in various literary journals and magazines. His debut novel, All Things Left Wild, will be released June 16, 2020, from Blackstone Publishing. His awards include the 2016 Writers' League of Texas Manuscript Contest (Historical Fiction) and honorable mention in the 2015 Texas Observer Short Story Contest.
James spent five years as a journalist, before serving as a legislative director at the Texas State Capitol during the 83rd Legislative Session. He also worked as a lobbyist on behalf of water conservation in Texas. James lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Jordan. He is an active member of the Writers' League of Texas.