by Jeff Guinn
Published in 2014 by Putnam Adult.
Reviewed by Bradley Wilson.
Full disclosure: I’ve never read Zane Gray or Louis L’Amour. I am not an expert on westerns. However, none of that stopped me from enjoying Jeff Guinn’s latest novel, Glorious, right up to the end.
It’s the story of a smooth talking greenhorn, Cash McClendon, learning to live in the untamed Arizona territory of the late 1800s. He’s a St. Louis city slicker who’s never ridden a horse or shot a gun. But he’s got one thing in common with the folks he meets in the infant town of Glorious: McClendon is on the run from his past. It’s not an innovative premise, but Guinn’s empathetic characters and heart-breaking plot twists more than make up for the novel’s well-worn starting point.
Normally, I am not a fan of prologues; the YA writer in me wants to get to that inciting event ASAP. But Guinn’s intro pages are … well, glorious. I won’t give away page three’s revelation, but he immediately prepares the reader to forget about stereotypes and expect the unexpected.
Forgive me, but now I am going to give away one of Guinn’s surprises. SPOILER ALERT: In chapter three he gives McClendon’s complete backstory. I’m going to discuss part of that here. Skip to the next paragraph if you’d rather not read my spoiler. Here it is: Cash McClendon is a former industrial spy on the run from a St. Louis robber baron. I love that. Even better, Guinn uses McClendon’s growing disillusionment with his past life as an ongoing thematic critique of America’s unique brand of cannibal capitalism.
Don’t worry; Glorious is not some anti-corporate screed. Guinn doesn’t let his socio-economic angle take over the story. Instead he uses it to give his hero a compelling character arc. The Cash McClendon who arrives in Glorious at the start of the book is very different from the man who rides away at the end.
Which brings me to the books strongest point. Guinn’s a master of character building. Without exception, the people who live in and around his tiny prospectors’ settlement are more than well-rounded. Each is rendered with utterly unique quirks and foibles. The bartender at the local watering hole is a great example. Crazy George is a meek, mostly blind business owner whose epithet derives from his frequent, chivalrous, and berserker-like use of a lead pipe to protect the honor of the prostitutes who work for him.
The whole cast has that kind of refreshing complexity. I fell in love with all of them – even the villains have depth and nuance – and easily sympathized with their increasingly hopeless situation. And it gets about as hopeless as you can imagine. At one point, all the surviving good guys literally get herded into a shack to be burned alive at gunpoint. Guinn’s great at making it unbearably hard for his characters to triumph.
Which made the book’s ending all the more disappointing. Glorious just kind of cuts off. The payoff falls well short of the buildup. And the resolution feels rushed. Which is a shame because I had a great time reading Jeff Guinn’s Glorious right up until those last couple of pages. Hopefully the sequel will deliver a more satisfying end to an otherwise engaging and entertaining yarn.
After a twenty-year career in theater, Bradley P. Wilson returned to school in 2011 to pursue his passion for writing and editing fiction. He holds a Masters of Liberal Arts degree in Creative Writing from St. Edwards University and freelances as a writer, editor, and stagehand in Central Texas. Currently an Associate Editor at CBAY Books and the staff blogger at Yellow Bird Editors, Bradley also copy edits Stage Call, the quarterly newsletter of Austin’s stagehands’ union, and serves as the President of the Board of Directors for Physical Plant Theater. Manuscripts he has edited have garnered such accolades as Hunger Mountain’s Katherine Paterson Award for YA and Children’s Writing. Most mornings he gets up way too early to work on his YA fantasy novel, The Search for Stagehand Jesus. He’s the author of several award-winning plays, and his poetry has been featured in the Sulfur River Literary Review.