I am reposting this 2015 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.
Takeaway: The downfall of greatness seems to be written in advance by the weaknesses that are inverse to the greatness.
John Wilson, the editor of Books and Culture, at some point listed Ron Hansen as one of the best living Catholic novelists. About a year or so ago I read Hansen’s Margarete in Ecstasy. It was hard for me to think about an author that wrote that story of a young devout nun also writing a story of the thief and murderer Jesse James.
Prior to reading the book, I really did not know anything about Jesse James or Robert (Bob) Ford. Hansen is writing historical fiction, but this is very historical, almost biography in feel. The difference between straight biography and historical fiction is blurred here, but it seems to be mostly accurate but with imagined dialogue.
Margarete in Ecstasy was so spare a narrative that it seemed to detract. But here that spare narrative seemed appropriate. Jesse James is presented as a fairly good father and faithful husband, while still being remorseless about his crime and murders. He was paranoid and had no problem killing off friends that he thought might betray him.
Bob Ford was a young sycophant that tagged along with James after James had made his name. Ford’s older brother Charlie was a full member of the James gang and brought Bob into the gang where he ingratiated himself into James’ good graces. But eventually Bob and his brother began to wonder if James was going to kill them. Bob, while visiting James’ home shot James in the back while James was dusting a fan with his guns off.
The story is mostly leading up to the shooting, but there is a long postlude as well. Ford’s life was up and down but when he was later killed, he done well for himself. Ironically it seems that only Frank James (the older brother of Jesse) died of a natural causes at 72. Jesse died at 34, Bob at 30, Charlie committed suicide at 26.
As spare as the writing was, there were a number of characters and I occasionally had a hard time tracking them all. I listened to this on audiobook, so in print it probably would have been less of a problem. I plan on giving Hansen one more try. While I thought this book was interesting, neither of his books that I have read so far really connected with me.