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hot iron

29 january 2021

Hot Iron is Elmer Kelton's first novel, from 1956: reprinted a couple of years ago by Forge, in the same volume as his masterpiece The Time It Never Rained. Hot Iron is a story of ranchers and rustlers out on the Llano Estacado, that perpetual Texan tabula rasa where masculine conflicts play out over a backdrop of mesquite trees and longhorns.

Our hero is Espy Norwood, a sobered-up alcoholic cattle-buyer in his mid-30s, determined to make a clean life for himself in the Panhandle and raise his son Kenny – on the brink of being citified by his supercilious aunt – into a real Texas male. A lot of hot iron does begin to fly around the pages of the book, about 2/3 of the way through, but for most of its length the basic currency of manhood is the fistfight.

Norwood begins the novel by beating up an outlaw named Quirt Wolford. Wolford's henchmen then jump Norwood and beat him up, but the keynote has been struck: Norwood gains an ascendance over the book's chief bad guy right at the start, and does it with his manly bare fists. Norwood is on his way, at the time, to take over management of a ranch; when he gets there, he has to beat up a restive cowboy named Claude Hatch in order to assert his authority over the outfit. When Kenny arrives, he is the butt of teasing and pranks till he wallops a kid named Joe Kirk and turns on the spot into Joe's best pal. How to make friends, Western-novel style: beat the tar out of anybody you meet.

Espy Norwood doesn't really make a friend of Claude Hatch, but he gains Claude's respect and ultimately Claude's alliance, after Claude dallies awhile with the bad guys. Quirt Wolford, on the other hand, has not absorbed the principle of Western ethics whereby you gain respect for the guy who's turned you into a punching bag. Wolford's irredeemable nature is nowhere better shown than in his refusal to take a blow to the solar plexus as the final word.

One wonders where our plot would be if any of these Norwood men ever lost a fistfight. But since they don't, they move to the next level of the gamelike plot and negotiate the cryptic politics of a vast ranch with an absurd number of cowboys and a dwindling number of cattle, siphoned off by Wolford and his rustlers. No points for guessing who wins.

Hot Iron is a satisfying if somewhat rudimentary cowboy adventure. Its weakest point, unsurprisingly, is its conception of women and their relationships with men. Three of the female characters fall in love with Espy Norwood at first sight, and they are so interchangeable in personality that it can be hard for a while to tell who's who. The motives of these women also reduce to smoldering passion for our hero. He does end up with one of them, but it's almost arbitrary which one and any romance is perfunctory. But the book is not called Hot Women, is it?

Kelton, Elmer. Hot Iron. 1956. In Hot Iron and The Time It Never Rained. New York: Forge [Macmillan], 2019. pp. 1-235.