How could it be otherwise, Socrates? Take one motherless, pubescent girl living (sort of) with her homeless, alcoholic yet fanatically religious father. Add one sexually driven sociopath recently released from the joint. Throw in some cock-fighting, crooked gambling, car thefts and a host of other survival hustles during the Depression/Dust Bowl days, and just who is left to live happily ever after?
None of these or the other well-crafted characters featured in a book reminiscent of “In Cold Blood” stand much of a chance, we reluctantly learn as pages become chapters and hard, stingy days turn into harder, colder nights.
“Hard Twisted,” a recently published novel by Cortez author C. Joseph Greaves, is easy to read, filled with eloquent prose, artful detail and fascinating bits of Southwest American lore — but pretty hard to take by the time you reach its grim, inexorable conclusion.
Based, like “In Cold Blood,” on a reallife crime spree, this one during an era that romanticized cheesy hoodlums such as bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the mostly fictional book draws readers along on a string of disturbing events that ring true to the time and place. Most notably for us in the Four Corners, the setting includes a brief stay in Durango that soon stretches on to the spectacular canyonlands of southeast Utah, where much of the action takes place.
The natural beauty of the red-rock country makes the violent acts committed by the psychotic main character seem even more surreal. Surely, one thinks, the raging beast within him will become tamed by his pristine environment, but this is not to be.
The novel culminates in the “skeleton” murder trial – as it was called in the yellow press – of drifter Clint Palmer, career rapist of teenage girls, whose vision extends only as far as his next meal, next scam or next imprisonment. As the narrative unwinds, his character becomes ever more menacing as we realize that he, like all truly crazy people, sees nothing “wrong” with his actions in what he perceives as a godless world where a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog reality is the sole item on the menu.
His traveling companion, Lucile Garrett, is a mostly empty 13-year-old vessel who takes her father’s Christian rantings as gospel while still yearning for simple girlhood pleasures:
. . . she closed her eyes and touched the slender cross at her throat, praying aloud, first for her mother’s eternal soul, and then for her uncle Mark, and lastly for a Little Buttercup doll with the blue ruffle dress and the matching bonnet with genuine lace trim, her head bowed as she spoke the words, her voice a tin voice in the still and wilted air.
A vulture kited overhead, its shadow rippling darkly over the ground, over the house, over the day. Over her life.
Her swain rails against her frequent allusions to Christian dogma, at one point slapping her and at another denouncing the very idea of a compassionate God:
You think they’s anyone in them churches gives a rat’s ass whether you eat or starve? Well, let me tell you something I learnt a long time ago, and that’s this right here. You want anything in this life, you got to go out and grab it. You just do what you gotta do, and don’t go askin permission or beggin no forgiveness.
After being picked up along with her dad while hitchhiking to their camp at an abandoned shell of a house in the gritty Oklahoma panhandle, she soon becomes the passive if refreshingly honest victim of Palmer, whose existence is dedicated to only the lowest levels of simple hedonism – liquor, sex and finding an easier way of getting by than working for a living. (Although, in fact, his efforts to avoid honest work seem in many ways a much harder path than a routine day job.)
Palmer seduces Lottie (“to my friends”) with promises of fried-chicken dinners, images of swimming in the pond on his daddy’s Texas farm and companionship with a niece who does not actually exist. After her father mysteriously disappears, Palmer takes the hapless Lottie with him on a journey to Utah during which his truly evil nature increasingly comes to light.
His life is all about fabrication. Palmer sees himself as far smarter, more clever and more successful than he is, even though persistent efforts to “pull the wool” over the eyes of those he cons – Monument Valley sheep rancher and legendary trading-post operator Harry Goulding, for instance – generally result in unintended consequences that keep him and his mate on the run, half-starved and bedding down wherever sunset happens to find them.
(Spoiler alert: This novel is in no way a mystery, but skip the rest of this review if you wish to have any suspense about the ending.) But when he learns from the casual observation of a half-crazed hermit they meet along the San Juan River that Lottie is in “the family way,” Palmer becomes quite indignant, asking her, though her sexual encounters have been only with him, if she has any idea who the father might be, and then absolving himself of any responsibility for what he apparently views as her “decision” to get pregnant.
I’ll say this but one time, Palmer spoke into his hat crown, so listen real close. You want a baby, that’s your business. But that don’t make it my business, understand?
Their misguided path leads to the murder of the also-legendary retired San Juan County Sheriff William Oliver, famed for sparking the Posey uprising known as the last Indian War. Palmer shoots him with the thoughtless rage of a childish tantrum (“I will NOT go back to my room!”), even though the crusty rancher has offered them shelter for the winter on the condition that the sheep Palmer is herding for Goulding be removed from pasture in John’s Canyon, traditionally used for cattle.
Three others are slain – the two Navajo sheepherders originally in charge of Goulding’s massive flock and Oliver’s hand – before Palmer yanks Lottie from the hospital where she is recovering from the premature birth and death of her baby to journey back to Texas, where he is finally captured and tried for the decapitation of her father, whose dessicated remains were discovered in a cave and placed on public display. He is ultimately convicted of the grisly deed, while Lottie ends up doing time in a girl’s reformatory for, ironically enough, “associating with a known criminal.”)
The beauty of the book lies in its attention to details, which show very plainly the great amount of work that went into researching the history on which it is based. The author explains it was inspired by his discovery, while hiking in Johns Canyon, of two human skulls that he speculates may well be those of the sheepherders, whose fate had remained unknown.
As a newspaper reporter I, one innocent time far gone, hoped that covering crime would lead me to some understanding of why people treat one another so callously. But my coverage of several remarkably brutal crimes (for instance, a teenage boy killing his grandmother in her bed with a 12-gauge, blowing a bloody hole right through her nightgown, ironically emblazoned with “World’s Best Grandmother”) helped me understand the motivation for such atrocities not at all. Likewise, in reading “Haed Twisted,” my ever-gullible self still held out some hope that a miracle would happen, that things would somehow “work out,” that Lottie would, by her sweet and unassuming existence, make Palmer realize his path was a bad one, and there would be a conversion, at least in his mind, and he would come to believe there is more to life than a jug of booze, a successful swindle and a warm body to hold at night.
But, boy, was I once more wrong.
“Hard Twisted” only underlined for me the fact that, in the end, life can be strange, dangerous and bizarre, and needs to be embraced cautiously.
With a nod to Plato, “How could it be otherwise?” is my own take on a skillfully written, moving book that deserves to be read as closely and carefully as it was created.