Series Breakdown Rating:
Spoilers: Yes (and some spoilers for the television series)
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Book Five – ***
Part One: This Is How You Write Badass Women
We might as well start with the good moments here because it’s only going downhill from there.
First, in order of appearance, we have the peyote trip. I love scenes in stories, whether by hypnosis, or magic, or hallucination, or drugs, where characters are confronted with visual representations of their own minds. Surreal dreamscapes and tactile manifestations of things like a character’s fears are engaging even when the bear no relevance to the plot. The peyote trip in this series is rather on the nose in its symbolism, even going so far as to explain some of that symbolism outright, but the visuals and especially the reactions from Jesse lend more depth than I think the scene initially seems to have. The reappearance of Jesse’s grandmother and her goons plays with the complex emotions he still carries for them, and always will – they’ve been dead for four books, but Jesse still dreads, hates, and even, in a weird way, respects them, still imagining himself to be weaker than Jody. He imagines the faceless John Wayne as a symbol of unadulterated masculinity and guardianship, looking up to him but placing his real-life father figures (his father and Jody) on a lower playing field, himself a child or otherwise unable to take control of the situation.
This series is not especially big on symbols outside of those that come with the territory of an action comic with Western elements, but eyes are the big one. Over the course of the series, eighteen characters show up with lost or somehow obscured eyes, variably reflecting things like lies and empowerment. Cassidy always wears sunglasses to hide his apparently unsettling eyes the same way he hides his past and unsavory nature. Starr’s eye was cut out as a child and the remaining scar creates a mask of someone with authority while obscuring his vulnerability and rage. John Wayne appears in the series with his face always in shadow, capable of wielding tremendous influence on Jesse but still a fiction with no real power. As the peyote trip merges with Jesse’s memories of falling out of the airplane, we learn that God bit out his eye in an effort to quell his defiance. Eyes and parallels between characters aren’t extensively explored in the peyote trip, but they still make their appearance.
The trip is short, but it gives the audience a bit to chew on.
The second half of the book is everything to do with Tulip. This is probably some of the best material she gets in the entire series, and it’s the sort of thing that solidifies the character’s role as beyond merely being the product of male wish fulfillment. She finally gets full backstory chapters like the other two protagonists that informs the audience of her upbringing. Her father was a hunter and gun enthusiast with aggressively traditional views on femininity until his wife died in childbirth and he had to raise Tulip on his own. The chapter’s take on a child growing up with sexist prejudices is nothing new, but it fits with the broader feminist themes of the series and there’s plenty of fresh material. For instance, the scene where Tulip’s father, formerly so conservative that he didn’t even care to name his child if it wasn’t a boy, convinces his bar buddies to advocate equal rights for women is hilarious and utterly charming. This and the following chapter provide an explanation for Tulip’s skill with firearms and her restraint when using them. In fact, we learn that she doesn’t actually like guns because her father died in a hunting accident, but she’s compelled to use them when her friends are in danger. As much as this mindset conflicts with my personal views on gun ownership and use, it’s valid enough for the sake of a fictional action series and makes sense from a character standpoint. Tulip encounters a lot of turmoil — much more than your average person, especially after the main plot of the series kicks off — so she uses what means she has at her disposal to keep the chaos around her in check. Her nearly killing a college kid who drugged and tried to rape her friend gives Tulip a better grasp on the responsibility that comes with a tool that can kill someone. I mentioned a few books back that while Jesse and Cassidy leave a wake of destruction like most action characters without worry for the ramifications, Tulip opts for more control over the people she threatens and only kills people who pose her or the others an active threat.
In the present day plotline, Tulip sobers up, gets away from Cassidy, and of course, reunites with Jesse. The last chapter seems like it could be a bit saccharine, but it plays its cards carefully and adopts more of a bittersweet tone. Tulip is traumatized by what she’s been through since losing Jesse, and in order to explain why, she has to explain the love fishing pole schema to him. Reliving the events puts her in a bad place, and the reader can see that even now, in the best possible outcome for the scenario set up in the last book, back with essentially everything she ever wanted or needed, she’s not just magically better. She’s lived through abuse, rape, coercion, addiction, and grief. That’s not the sort of thing a person recovers from overnight, and even in this chapter, the way she’s drawn is tired, disheveled, and often crying. At the same time, though, her dialogue and actions are vibrant. At one point she explains that even if she isn’t over it, and probably never will be, she’s not in that place anymore. She makes it clear that she has problems; as a character, she is prone to becoming wrapped up in simple acts, whether drinking, having sex, getting angry, or weeping – but all of that is a sort of escapism, and here she addresses that she doesn’t want mere escapism anymore. She can feel complex emotions, and be sad, traumatized, relieved, goofy, affectionate, happy, and calm all at once. This is something I rarely even see major dramas about serious things like drug addiction deal with, and it’s beautifully uplifting. In such a dour book, it’s a moment of respite that I feel is desperately needed.
But as with most everything in this series, there’s a hint of something askew. Especially in the latter chapters, you get a small sense of something uncanny — like a reflection that isn’t reversed. Some of this comes from the parallels that the series loves to draw between its various characters — Jesse is paralleled with Cassidy, even by Tulip, when she says to each of them, “This is me,” as a response for why she isn’t acting the way they expect. There’s also a strange moment shortly after Tulip escapes her captivity where she mourns for, presumably, Jesse, but the next chapter features her relationship with her father. This isn’t an accident of a serial release, either; Tulip subconsciously revealing an Oedipus complex comes up again in the last chapter, signalling continued problems with her and Jesse’s relationship. The biggest hint that their reunion might not be as innocent and joyous as it seems comes from the last chapter’s name: I Built My Dreams Around You.
Now, I don’t often bring external allusions and references to bear in interpreting a piece of a story, partly because I lack the worldliness to pick up on anything other than the most overt allusions, but this one sticks out because knowing the reference loads the scene with much more information than an uninformed observer would receive. The title is a line from the end of Fairytale of New York by The Pogues, which is so perfect for this series, I’ll be saddened if it doesn’t somehow make it into the show. The song is about an alcoholic in a New York jail dreaming about his girlfriend whom he promised riches and fame before both of them had a falling out over, among other things, lies and drugs. The fairytale and dreams referenced in the song are delusions the characters develop and maintain, and which contribute to their downfalls.
Some of that seems familiar somehow. Anyway, the bottom line is that Fairytale of New York is the best Christmas song and if you think this book has a happy ending, you’d better listen to it.
Part Two: Two Vietnam Chapters Do Not Make a Story Arc
That sequence is… pretty good, actually. Unfortunately, it comes in what I consider to be the least effective book of the series, one that is full of unnecessary sidelines, tangents, and a tediously long, uninterrupted segment about Jesse’s adventure becoming a sheriff. In all honesty, the worst parts of this book are probably lesser than the worst parts of the others, but there does seem to be more of it here. This book’s biggest crime is simply that large parts of it are bland.
A good example of this comes when Jesse visits his father’s old war friend, Space, and asks how his father was awarded the Medal of Honor. The Vietnam War stories only come up twice in this series, and the first time is short, active, and paints a grim picture of an honorless, mismanaged, and violent arena, reflecting a mindset relevant to the characters and themes of the series. I find the first story subversive, even within the typically critical Vietnam War genre, and while one could argue that this second one has its subversive elements, I think there are two main differences that make it feel diminished.
First, the Gonny story in the second book was tightly paced. It took up a full chapter, but the story continued to cut back to Space and Jesse talking, and would divert to flesh out the other soldiers and environment. There were several major beats, and a lot of information given in a short span of time. Even if the story seemed irrelevant to the plot, it was still well-told as its own narrative and contributed to the tone of the surrounding main plot. Second, it ended with a punch – really two punches, if you count their friend dying and then them retaliating – that leaves the audience with something to consider. What they did was very much illegal and immoral, but we sympathize because the guy they act against effectively kills their friend through malicious incompetence. It also demonstrates a survivalist nature to war and a politicization of human lives.
The Medal of Honor story is a lot simpler and feels much longer. It has one main punchline – that Jesse’s father “earned” the Medal of Honor largely from being accidentally shot by Americans. The rest of the story is about him and Space trudging through the swamp to find a safe outpost, and while there are some good character moments here, it’s really not enough to support its page count. In the first story, there was tension and some mystery because the characters to whom bad things happened were unknown to the audience, and the consequences for Jesse’s father and Space were psychological, not physical. There is some amount of psychological tension here, but not nearly as much, and the payoff is not as significant either.
The main justification for this chapter I can see is the way it allows Jesse to mull over his own morality. He looks up to his father as a sort of infallible hero, much like he looks up to John Wayne. However, this image of his father is based on what he wants his father to be more than what his father really was to him. The Medal of Honor story complicates this image as Jesse realizes his father was a person with admirable qualities, but still a far shot from a superhero. This realization lifts the rose-tinted glasses from his eyes and lets him deal with the realities of the other people in his life, namely Tulip and Cassidy.
As much as I like the consequences the story has for Jesse, I feel it could have been relayed solely through dialogue. The expansion of the story doesn’t contribute much to the broader narrative and feels like a sidetrack meant to pad the page count, much like the last two chapters in Book Four. It might be forgivable on its own, but unfortunately it’s just the simplest demonstration of unnecessary side plots that plague this book.
Part Three: This Guy Fucks Meat… Is that Going to Be Important Some—? No, I Guess He Just Fucks Meat
The first several chapters of the book – well over the first half, in fact – is an uninterrupted tangential story about Jesse coming to a small town with race relation issues and an evil meat processing company owner. This story essentially boils down to this: the evil meat-packing man who wants to kill Jesse is short, racist, and has sex with a giant meat lady. That’s the conflict right there – how will Jesse stop the creepy meat man?
This is exactly where I would have liked more of Tulip and Cassidy, or Starr, or really anything, to break up the long slow draw of Jesse spinning in circles. The series has been so good until now in breaking up intense plots with different points of view and different events happening simultaneously. When one subplot reaches a climax or relieves tension, another comes along to keep the audience engaged. The only other example of a continuous story like this is probably the Saint’s backstory, but that was half as long and involved new lore and supernatural elements.
This isn’t to say the whole story is garbage – there are some fun characters and commentary that reveals something of the protagonist’s morals, especially in how he deals with the town’s well-known redeemed ex-Nazi. Jesse is willing to go pretty far to forgive people who try to make up for the wrongs they’ve committed, but he crosses the line at racists and mass murderers, no matter how repentant they are. When he learns that the ex-Nazi’s story about running away from the front lines and never having the stomach to go through with the atrocities the Nazis were famous for is complete bunk, and that he was among the people killing concentration camp prisoners, Jesse only leaves him with the sympathy of a noose. The book leaves whether the ex-Nazi kills himself or Jesse orders him to do it ambiguous, but either way, Jesse is the executioner.
The moments of poignancy in these chapters, however, are few and far between.
The meat-packing plant owner, Quincannon, has an outlandish, eerie design and might be a fun minor villain, but he lacks the presence the other villains have had. He’s more of a joke villain we laugh at for being pathetic, but he’s not really that funny. These chapters maintain the sharp dialogue and witty delivery that the rest of the series has, but very little of it comes from Quincannon. He’s stuck between being a legitimately intimidating villain and a comedic antagonist, never really reaching the full mark of either. A large part of this, I think, comes down to him just not being that complex. His goal throughout the narrative is to kill Jesse, but he doesn’t really have a good reason for it, and he largely lacks the means to achieve it. His threatening other characters comes close to giving Quincannon a defined villainy, but at the end of the day, he’s just another inconvenient asshole.
Jesse’s mother turns up alive, and that doesn’t really seem to impact the plot at all. Throughout this story, Jesse has cared for exactly two other living people on the planet, both of whom have betrayed him in his mind; one would think him finding that his mother still alive would be somewhat important for his mental state, but she does practically fuck all, and they have about one deep conversation before Jesse fucks off to go find God again. The series has handled reviving characters fairly well up until now, and while this is clearly a more obvious visit to trope territory than Tulip or Jesse’s being brought back to life, it’s especially disappointing for the series to take such a risk and not even try to get anything out of it. Jesse’s mom being alive doesn’t pay off. In fact, the whole first half of the book has little to no bearing on the rest of the plot. If it never happened, the story would continue without a hitch.