Monday, May 15, 2017

Book Review: The Night I Caught the Santa Fe Chief

Title: The Night I Caught the Santa Fe Chief

(Amazon's generic mock-book-cover image is more colorful than the book I have--plain black hardcover with the author's name and title in very small gold-tone letters on the back.)

Author: Edward Thorpe

Date: 1970

Publisher: St. Martin’s

ISBN: none

Length: 184 pages

Quote: “Y’just crashed y’car but they ain’t chargin’ ya with anythin’, right?...[I]f they catch up with me an’ I got you along they’re gonna be jus’ a li’l bit careful how they act, ain’t they?”

Thus Frederick St. John Lloyd-Forbes, a 24-year-old wrapping paper designer on his first visit to the United States, finds himself camping in the desert above the U.S.-Mexican border with Gene Solensky, a hardened outlaw. Fred wrecked his rental car and was being taken to rent another one by a highway patrol officer when the report that Solensky had stolen a car and was in the vicinity came in. The patrolman tried to arrest Solensky. Solensky killed him and took Fred hostage, and overnight they became buddies on the Western-movie adventure of Fred’s British prep-school-boy daydreams…

That’s the trouble with this novel. It is a contemporary teenager’s fantasy, with all the trimmings: helpful hippies, friendly Navajos, fat foolish tourists the pair can exploit, all arranged at the most convenient times and places to make a story just the right length, with just the right amount of a moral, for a “Western” genre novel or movie. As long as they’re depending on the kindness of Gene’s conveniently situated friends, all goes well; when Gene kills a man who might or might not have been dangerous to him, his luck runs out just in time to bring him to a suitable end and send Fred back to his job in England.

It’s vividly written, by someone who’s done some camping and may even have been in Texas—not for long. Gene’s accent is all over the map and, though plenty of Americans take our own folklore too seriously, Gene’s character is pure nineteenth century outlaw legend. The graphically described three-way sex scene with the hippie could have happened—there were plenty of real hippies who subscribed to that kind of notion of hospitality in 1970—but the whole story is, well, too much of a fantasy to be plausible.

Basically The Night I Caught the Santa Fe Chief is escape reading aimed at teenagers and young men, who probably shouldn’t read it…but if somebody found the right actors and sank a lot of money into the production, it’d make a great movie.

So it's subliterature...maybe sub-subliterature, not nearly as good as Zane Grey or Louis L'Amour. And, for that reason, it's become hard to find, and if you want this classic of 1960s-meets-Western kitsch, it'll cost you $10 per copy (maybe more if Amazon sellers see this review and jack up their prices) + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, and I have no idea whether the author is living--undoubtedly under some other name, if he (or she) is, though I am reasonably sure the author is not American. Four, I suspect possibly eight, books of the size of the copy I physically own would fit into one package for one $5 shipping fee.