DESPERADOES: RIDING WITH THE DALTONS – Marilyn Armstrong

Desperadoes: A Novel, by Ron Hansen

This is not a new book. It was released again on Kindle in May 2013. Desperadoes has been available in soft or hardcover (currently, only soft) since 1997.

I love western movies and have since I was a kid. I’ve read a lot of “western” novels too over the years, enjoyed some, didn’t much like others. Overall, I prefer this genre as cinema rather than as a book.

Nonetheless, I was drawn to this book after I realized I know very little about the personal lives and motivations of these notorious bandit gangs of the turn of the century wild west.

Until this book, I hadn’t realized the James boys, the Youngers, Coles, and the Daltons were related. Cousins. This led me to interesting speculations about the relative importance of DNA versus environment in character formation. The familial relationships certainly present some intriguing possibilities. Perhaps the cousins were all copying each other’s “feats.” The story hints that there was at least some jealousy by the Daltons of cousin Jesse’s fame.

Desperadoes is well-written and feels authentic. It feels so realistic I found myself asking how much of the story was “made up” and how much was historical. The answer is a lot of it is fact, but a lot of it isn’t. Fiction and fact are beautifully woven throughout the story. It is difficult to tease them apart. Nonetheless, this is a novel, so if you want “real” history, this isn’t it. I’m often not sure if “real” history is more realistic than well-conceived semi-historical fiction.

Jesse James

On the other hand, if you are more interested in the psychological profile of these characters and the feeling of being transported to another time and place, this might be exactly the right book. Sometimes fiction contains more truth than “only the facts” can convey.

Whether you enjoy the book will depend on if you can find a way to emotionally connect with any of the characters. All of the Daltons and their close associates lack a moral compass as well as a fundamental understanding of right and wrong. Even granting that they came from backgrounds of extreme deprivation — and their role models were as depraved as they themselves became — it’s hard to understand the characters’ rapid, virtual overnight transformation from relatively decent people and officers of the law into rustlers, bank robbers, and sadistic thrill killers.

Despite occasional actions that could be interpreted as “gallant” or at least decent, their primary goal was attention. Fame. They wanted to be feared and recognized. Towards that end, they also stole money but money was never a primary motivator. To achieve this end, there were no lines they would not cross, no rules they would not break. At no point is there any feeling that it mattered a whit to any of them how many people’s lives they ruined or ended. They were sociopaths (maybe psychopaths — I’ve never been entirely clear on the difference), utterly lacking in empathy except for one another … and there were limits to that, too.

$15,000 was a LOT of money in the late 1800s!

The story is told in the first person by Emmett Dalton, the one brother who survived. He went out to Hollywood where they were happy (apparently) to pay him big bucks to “advise” and provide authenticity to the making of movies.

Of all the bandits — all his brothers and cousins — only he remained alive to “cash in” on the notoriety.

Ironically, they started as lawmen. While still functioning in that capacity, they began rustling horses. They didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with it. It wasn’t that they didn’t know it was illegal, but the whole “right” and “wrong” thing seems to have been rather hazy to them. Moreover, working as a sheriff or deputy sheriff was so poorly paid they actually couldn’t live on the money. So they initially considered horse-stealing a way to supplement their incomes. They eventually were caught though only big brother Gratton (Grat) (probably mildly retarded) was arrested for rustling.

Grat spent a bit of time in jail, but was ultimately released. A trial would have embarrassed the judge who had employed the Daltons as lawmen. He didn’t want it known his employees were horse thieves. Except that everyone knew. It just wasn’t official — and never became official.

The Dalton boys’ decision to become an outlaw gang was exactly that: a choice. They were not forced into a life of crime. They genuinely enjoyed being outlaws and criminals. They liked beating people up, breaking their body parts and killing them, sometimes just because they felt like it. No sense of remorse is forthcoming through the voice of the narrator.

Emmett, as the first-person narrator, supposedly was privy to every moment of the life of his brothers. This is a bit hard to swallow unless the other gang members spent all of their free time telling Emmett everything they had done since they’d last talked. You have to suspend your credibility or there’s no way to get into the book.

Memento Mori of the Dalton Gang. Left to right...
Left to right: Bill Power; Bob Dalton; Grat Dalton, Dick Broadwell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the Dalton lads (there were 15 brothers and sisters and you never learn what happened to most of the others) Bob is the true glory hound. Grat is a big dumb guy who seemed to not have any thoughts about much of anything. Emmett, two years younger than Bob, is his older brother’s passionate admirer.

His adulation of Bob Dalton was unlimited, though to Emmett’s credit (?), he did occasionally think up an interesting crime to commit, so he was not without a degree of personal creativity. Of the gang, he also appeared to be the only one with any capacity for love — in a severely circumscribed way.

Then there’s Bob’s psychopathic girlfriend, Eugenia Moore who was the real brains of the outfit, though perhaps brains is too strong a word.

As you can probably tell, I didn’t like the characters. There is a high probability that the author has captured the essence of these people accurately, but accuracy alone wasn’t enough to make me enjoy being in their company. Ultimately, if I can’t relate to at least one character in a book, it’s difficult for me to enjoy the story. I spent the first half of this book looking for a redeeming feature in someone. I spent the rest of the book wishing I’d never started reading it in the first place.

English: Grave of Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton and ...
Grave of Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton and Bill Power (Photo: Wikipedia)

This was Ron Hansen’s first novel. He has written a dozen or so since then and he is highly regarded. I have no argument with his skill as a writer and perhaps I would like his later novels and non-fiction better than Desperadoes.

I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t enjoy it. Perhaps the nature of the material foreordained my response. Sadistic, vicious killers are not romantic. I don’t find a trip through their minds fun. Interesting is as good as I can give it.

They make my skin crawl. Other people obviously did like the book very much and it has received excellent reviews. If you can read it as a case study of a bunch of old-timey psychopaths — or are they sociopaths? I’m never sure of the difference) — you might like it better than I did. It is well-written though thoroughly unpleasant. I guess that’s what you get when you write about outlaw gangs, even when you write really well.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

9 thoughts on “DESPERADOES: RIDING WITH THE DALTONS – Marilyn Armstrong”

  1. Glad you realized this is fiction, Marilyn. As someone who has done research on the myth and reality of the west, and who lives in Carson City, I must say that most “western” literature was written or filmed by those who had very little to do with the west. I call it the Myth of Marion Morrison. A much better western author than most of the well-known ones is Will James, who knew the west from both sides of the law and pooh-poohed those myths.

    Myth: The draw-down in the street. Happened apparently only once when two old drunks got in an argument, emptied their 6 guns at each other – without hitting anything. Fact – 6 shooters couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn – too inaccurate. The Shootout at the OK Corral happened – but not as a drawdown, and not with 6 guns. Fact – you could not carry weapons in a town run by Wyatt Earp, so the current gun-nut myth about the absolute necessity of open or concealed carry of your steel penis is just that – if Carson City were the REAL west, those characters would have to check all weapons in when they came to town.

    And so on and so forth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did know most of that and I also knew that a lot of the gun stuff was fake because those revolvers were not accurate at any distance. Garry wants to know why they had to break all those windows. Glass HAD to be expensive. But this book wasn’t really about stuff they did, but their weird minds and crimes. It was a kind of mental analysis which I didn’t much care for. I don’t like reading about criminal minds anyway, modern or old … and in the end, the only difference between these guys and modern criminals seems to have been the choice of weapons — and the lack of cars. Also, no cell phones.

      I can’t prove it, but I have a feeling that criminals are criminals, no matter where they live or what language they speak. Or for that matter, from what culture they emerged. Most of these guys were ugly and vicious. Although these days, it seems to be quite the fashion — being ugly and vicious, that is.

      I think the gunfight between Holliday and Johnny Ringo was a tiny bit closer to reality. At least they didn’t stand back a quarter of a mile and expect anyone to get shot.

      I like westerns since I know they AREN’T history. They are entertainment. I can accept the ridiculousness of them as long as they have a lot of HORSES.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ranger Don, you speak the truth. I love “The Myth of Marion Morrison”. It could be 2nd feature to “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”.
      I am familiar with Will James.
      Your line about Carson City would’ve fit in well at last night’s Dem Debate # 2 — shouted out by Deputy Benie Sanders.
      “The Long Riders” is a decent account of these sibling shootists.
      I look forward to reading this Daltons’ tome – keeping in mind truth versus myth.

      Like

  2. “Based upon true events”. That’s what is usually says when the Movie arrives. Then all kind of licentious mischief occurs – starting with the Casting. But I guess we didn’t come to watch a documentary. or did we? I didn’t anyway – though I sorta pray they won’t stray too far into the cactus.
    In a book however, I generally want to find as close to the truth as possible. No substituting pics of Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis or anything.
    Looks … interesting.

    Like

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