David Brown’s Fistful of Reefer was my first contact with fiction concerning the “Old West.” Of course, I had a certain idea of the golden age of gunslingers, but I also knew that this idea was severely flawed.
What first struck me was the intensity of character the first protagonist you encounter displays. Texas Ranger McCutchen is one hard man of strong and firm opinions who knows what is wrong and what is right. And he will shoot you if you disagree too much or get in his way.
Interestingly, the Texas Ranger, a staple hero in American literature, is the villain.
McCutchen’s story could end here. In keeping with pulp literature, he could have just been the Bad Guy, period. It would also be in keeping with 1950s Western flicks. It doesn’t end here, though. As the story continues, we get a glimpse into McCutchen’s mind. He has reasons to be what he is. They are selfish, self-righteous reasons, and they do not make him any more sympathetic, but they make him a real and believable character.
McCutchen’s antagonists (or so he believes) are a quasi-family of three marijuana farmers: Nena, a Kickapoo Native American, her husband Chancho, a Mexican, and their friend Muddy, an African American. The three are just normal people trying to make a living in difficult times.
This constellation — a very white and racist Texas Ranger facing off against three ordinary and multiethnic people, each a member of a minority ill treated in the history and present of the United States — is a bit too moralistic and in your face. It wouldn’t have hurt the story at all if Muddy had been either Nena’s or Chancho’s brother. Everything would have been just as believable.
Apart from this one point, there’s little to criticize in Fistful of Reefer. I have to commend Brown on the chemistry he creates within this patchwork family of sorts. It becomes clear quickly that all three love each other; that they genuinely care for one another and are just decent folk.
The plot is fast. The novella is a page turner. I was particularly impressed with the author’s ability to describe dynamic situations and moments of fear.
Brown’s description of the flash flood stands out. It almost made me grab the armrest of my chair. The same goes for landscapes. You really get the feel of the land the story is set in. In a way, it feels like you are in the middle of a movie.
Despite the fact that the main story line is about a Texas Ranger chasing a family of farmers who are not quite sure what hit them, Fistful of Reefer is not only gunslinging action. Political intrigue fueled by an unstable situation in Mexico and the First World War going on in Europe is mentioned in the margins rather early and becomes a more prominent factor the further the story progresses.
The last thing worth mentioning are the ideas Brown came up with. I have to restrain myself not to put any spoilers in here. From Chancho’s bizarre homebuilt marijuana harvester to, well, rather bizarre guard animals employed by unexpected allies, the novella has a few surprising dieselpunk elements to offer. I knew that I would encounter some dieselpunk along the way, but I did not expect the ones Brown actually incorporated.
To sum up: Fistful of Reefer is a thoroughly enjoyable novella. It has action, intrigue, humor and weird ideas.
On the down side, it suffers a bit from stereotypical characters, though the roles are inverted. This is a homage to the original Old West fiction, I suppose, but I found it a bit shallow.
Still, this is the only thing I can complain about.
This story first appeared in Gatehouse Gazette 20 (September 2011), p. 28, with the headline “Fistful of Reefer”.