New release westerns, at least those that aren’t stapled chapbooks in your local newsagent, are a rare thing. The genre has had its ups and downs, and after over a hundred years, you might be forgiven for thinking there was no new angle a western could explore.
In A Hanging at Cinder Bottom however, author Glenn Taylor does just that. In telling the story of Abe Baach, cardsharp and con-artist extraordinaire, Taylor flits between 1903 and 1910. In doing so we are able to see the end of the west and, in the town of Keystone, West Virginia, a community trading its horses for cars and its hay for coal.
Abe Baach, second son of a German immigrant, discovers an early affinity for cards. He plays at the table of Harry Trent, who runs the town until framed for theft, at which point he leaves for the bright lights of Baltimore. He returns seven years later, confident in his new-found skills as a con-man and sets out to teach Harry Trent a lesson he’ll never forget.
The story alternates between the two time periods and, in doing so, shows us the change that can occur in only seven years. Abe leaves by lamplight and returns to electricity. He runs from a town fuelled by whiskey and whores, and returns to elections and automobiles. This theme of change from wild frontier to neat suburb pervades the book and fits the ethos of the western nicely.
A pity, therefore, that the story and its execution are unfailingly pedestrian. The characters might have been chosen by a child pointing at pictures from the Bumper Book of Cowboys. True, they are not ranch hands and cowpokes, but they are all caricatures and none feel as though they have real depth. Abe Baach is a card sharp, and we know that because we’re told he is. We never see him play cards nor get any indication of his skill at the baize table save for everyone else mentioning he’s pretty good. Likewise when he returns we know he’s a con-man because we’re told so, and heaven forbid we might see him hustle. This tendency of Taylor to tell and not show makes the book seem ponderous and long.
The true strength of the book is in the sense of the ending of one era and the start of another. We see the cowboys disappear, replaced by gangsters. The dusty simplicity of the frontier is replaced by the dank reality of the urban sprawl. It is a fascinating glimpse into a time ill-documented, and Taylor deserves to be congratulated for it.
Reviewed by D C White
Rating out of 10: 5