Who knew that bowling was a popular pastime in the Old West?
Novelist Jeff Guinn did — and that’s how the protagonist of Silver City, the wrap-up book in a trilogy of Western adventures, wound up running a bowling alley in the back of an 1870s frontier feed store.
This isn’t a major part of the Silver City plot, mind you. It’s just a fun piece of forgotten Western history that Guinn, a bestselling author from Fort Worth, weaves into his story.
“I wrote a nonfiction book several years ago called The Last Gunfight, about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” Guinn says. “While doing the research about Tombstone, I learned about the surprising things Tombstone had in that day: a baseball team, a horse racing track, an ice cream parlor and a bowling alley.”
It’s fun to picture a Western town in which ranch hands and silver miners come looking for “recreation beyond ladies and whiskey” and satisfy that need by rolling a few frames.
So Guinn’s protagonist, Cash McLendon, a city fellow who headed west to escape a hired killer, winds up managing a bowling alley in the weeks before his terrifying adversary finally catches up with him.
This is what Guinn does: Instead of filling his books with the mythology of the Old West, much of which has no basis in fact, he goes for authenticity and reveals what life in those times really was like.
“The truth is always better than the mythology,” Guinn insists.
The author’s next nonfiction book, The Road to Jonestown, about Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and the Jonestown mass suicides of 1978, comes out in April.
We’ll check in with him another time about that book. For now, let’s talk Silver City.
Compared to the first two books in the series (Glorious and Buffalo Trail), the plot of Silver City feels a little more like a traditional B-movie Western. Was this deliberate?
Each of the three books has a distinct personality.
In Glorious, I wanted to introduce the frontier the way it really was. It wasn’t a shootout at high noon every day. I wanted to show the economic drive and the kinds of people who came out to the frontier.
But there were readers who said, “I want more action. This is a Western.” So with Buffalo Trail, I said, “OK, I’ll give you probably the greatest Indian battle in frontier history, one that makes Little Bighorn look like a skirmish.” Different kind of story, but still rooted in actual history — and Cash is there.
Now, with Silver City, I take the traditional Western themes that a lot of us who grew up on Westerns loved. So there’s the pursuit across the desert, but I still strive to keep the realism.
And again, I use real-life characters. There’s Goyathlay, better known as Geronimo, and Ike Clanton (one of the O.K. Corral outlaws, who is the villain’s sidekick). I especially loved writing about Ike because in real life he was so stupid and so drunk all the time, there’s absolutely nothing he wouldn’t do.
Your villain’s weapon of choice isn’t a six-shooter, but steel-toed boots. And he’s so intimidating that even mighty Goyathlay turns tail and runs. Yet, Killer Boots is no match for the frontier. Among other problems, he gets a near-crippling case of saddle sores. Can we chalk this particular detail up to your own “seat-of-the-pants” research.
Hell, yes! I got them too! Here’s the thing about that character, Patrick Brautigan, or Killer Boots: When I introduced him in the first book, he was sort of like the great white shark in the movie Jaws. You saw him only a little bit here and there, which at least in theory makes him scarier.
But this time I had to do a lot more with him. And like all the other characters, I wanted him to feel real. So I found ways to make him vulnerable. He’s out of place and feeling a great deal of discomfort.
The frontier can be a great equalizer.
Even though you’re the author and the one calling the shots, are you ever surprised by where the plot takes you?
Whenever I start a novel, I always know how it begins and I’ve got a vague idea how it will end and I’ve got no idea what’s coming in the middle. In Silver City, I wanted a final long climatic scene for the readers who have stuck with me through all three books.
Without giving away too much plot, my characters are in the desert and the pursuit is going on. I’m asking myself, “What happens next?” That’s when my fingers start typing a couple of paragraphs that as far as I know were never authorized by my brain.
And all of a sudden, I’ve got Geronimo and Apache renegades in my story. I had no idea that was going to happen. But it sure made it fun.
- By Jeff Guinn
- G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27
- In stores Tuesday, Jan. 24
- Meet the author: Jeff Guinn will be at Barnes & Noble, 4801 Overton Ridge Blvd. in Fort Worth, at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, to discuss Silver City and to sign copies.