/ the daily muse

Elegy for Jesse: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

“Song For Jesse” | Nick Cave & Warren Ellis | Official Soundtrack | 2007

Earlier lamented, it’s been a while since I finished a book. Started half a dozen, each eventually laying fallow on shelves and tables, ponds briefly tested by tentative toes. Steinbeck, Murakami, McInerny, Ellis, Capote – in the previous year, these authors had ruined my interest in other stories, imposed a restlessness with narrative that lasted up till now.

During the heavy rains that plagued Brooklyn’s summer months, my window sill, serving as one of many shelves around the apartment, sprung a leak, soaking through my volume of Jesse James. I proclaimed it a wash, nearly tossing it for trash, then reconsidered. Over a few days I fanned its damp brown pages until its limp leaves once again regained a now warped rigidity. Pre-soak, I’d chipped away at less than a fourth of its weight, but my volume’s early pages were inked with annotations and underlines that convinced me this was the right book, at the right time. Upon finally drying, my copy took on the tactile quality of a weathered keepsake, dilapidated but still very much intact. It was light yet substantial in my hands, it’s spine pliable, it’s curled edges making them easier to turn. I found my place and began again…

Robert Hansen’s book is a keenly imagined, historically accurate account of the assassination of celebrity outlaw Jesse Woodson James, known across the American west and beyond as a man both notorious and revered; ruthless yet genial. A man of almost preternatural energy and cunning that captured the imagination of scores of his contemporaries. It’s unnecessary to recapitulate the story of his legend and downfall here. What’s remarkable about this book is the language – a narrative of tattered, stately, old-fashioned language made musical with solemnity and lyricism. I’ve never looked up so many words in my life. Beguiling words: furbelow, stentorian, bungey, perfidy, bivouac. Words lending anachronistic spice to sentences so finely crafted you actually, really do go back and read them again. And again. This book reminded me of why I read books in the first place.

I was apprised of the novel by the movie of the same name, a faithful adaptation that boasted finely nuanced acting, a superb script and the always stunning cinematography of Roger Deakins, who that year was nominated twice as Best Cinematographer, once for Jesse James and again for No Country For Old Men. (Old Men won). But thankfully, the film is not just an exercise in style and visual beauty – the script wisely inserts verbatim snatches of language into its narrative and invents new scenes and dialogue so true to the tone and language of the book, you’d think the author himself had scripted it.

“His thoughts glanced away from ensnarements like minnows… His nose…not long or preponderant, no proboscis, but upturned a little and puttied, a puckish, low-born nose, the ruin, he thought, of his otherwise gallantly handsome countenance…[He] let his fancies run like red-eyed ferrets, letting the experienced air educate his senses. … He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.”

Need I say more? Go pick up a copy. It and the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The two fit together like a bullet in a chamber.

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