Hansen, who used an effective memoir frame for Desperadoes, constructs this less successful western ""faction"" along the...

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THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

Hansen, who used an effective memoir frame for Desperadoes, constructs this less successful western ""faction"" along the lines of that old TV show You Are There--dramatizing the Jesse James story with well-written, artful descriptions. . . yet also drawing away to show us the frame like an announcer's binding narration. The story is set up immediately: having botched the Northfield bank holdup, the James gang sits quiet a while and then returns to train robbing. The time is 1881, and Jesse James is at the height of his status as mythic hero. Then, with his brother Charley, 19-yearold Bob Ford weasels his way into the gang: he's a sniveling, unctuous, craven boy-but Jesse, almost spookily dignified and spiritually calm, seems not to notice or much care. And this is the novel's best section, with Jesse treating Bob's instability as a kind of test of his own character and detachment. . . while Bob continually fails prey to the inherent foulness in his character. Soon, however, with Jesse murdered in a seemingly pre-ordinaed act, Bob discovers that the Missouri governor's enormous reward--and the pardon from a murder sentence--have spared him merely for a life of contempt by others: to kill a folk hero is to attack imagination, and the short remainder of Bob's life is sordid in every way. Hansen is historically precise: ""Bob raised a brick of yellow soap to his nose smelling its ingredients: rainwater, sal soda, unslaked lime; tallow, rosin, salt."" But only occasionally can he get tension into this documentary approach; and the zooms between close-up and voice-over soon become predictable and sapping. Thoughtful, artful reconstruction--yet largely uninvolving, without the nostalgic tug of Desperadoes.

Pub Date: Oct. 27, 1983

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1983