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An ambitious debut re-creating the life and career of post—Civil War outlaw Jesse James and asking some serious questions about violence and the American West. There are in fact two narratives here: one about Joshua Beynon, an adolescent who dreams of becoming a “shootist,” the other tracing the career of Jesse James. Joshua falls in with Bob Ford, the natty, notorious assassin of James who makes a living by gambling. When Joshua is arrested for the accidental death of his father, Ford helps get him acquitted, and Joshua goes to work as Ford’s bodyguard, often carrying out his shady schemes (like doping a favored racehorse so Ford can make a killing by betting against him). The would-be shootist discovers how truly difficult it is to kill a man when he fails to protect Ford from a shotgun-wielding assassin. The core of the story, though, is a careful, vivid, energetic retelling of Jesse James’s career as bank- and train-robber. Having served as a Confederate guerrilla and deeply galled by the southern defeat, James’s “aching and turbulent soul” is attracted to crime as a means both to avenge the South and to recapture the exhilaration he felt in action. Barry does a deft job of capturing the courtliness that won James admiration as well as his pathological appetite for violence: he killed often, with zest, and for little cause. Joshua, who begins by believing that men of action have a natural nobility, discovers in his research into James’s career (spurred by his own failure as a gunman) that in fact they feel truly alive only when courting extinction. The legends of the gunmen that have fed his imagination turn out to be little more than efforts to excuse the disturbed, amoral behavior of twisted, desperate men. Barry’s language has believable period tang, his re-creation of events is precise and convincing, and his perceptions—while not surprising—are served up with vigor. A gripping narrative and impressive debut.

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2000
ISBN: 0-316-12038-3
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1999