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the time it never rained
14 march 2021
The Time It Never Rained (1973) is usually considered Elmer Kelton's best novel. It is a flawed novel, but a fascinating one. It attempts to be true to direct experience of work and nature, while filtering that experience through the conventions of genre fiction and ideology. It is packed with rhetoric and contains big dollops of pathos and sentimentality. It attempts to unpack racism but remains stuck in the very paternalism it critiques; it tries to give Mexican-Americans a voice but constantly strains that voice through the prejudices of its Anglo protagonist. That protagonist, Charlie Flagg, is its only believable character. But having a central character, whose intense willpower refracts the view we get of everyone else in his orbit, puts The Time It Never Rained in the company of some of the best fiction, not just of the West but of the West, I suppose.
Charlie Flagg is both a believable West Texas rancher of the 1950s and a medium for libertarian argument. That's the basic tension in The Time It Never Rained: Kelton's low-key, realistic drama of the environment on the one hand, and his use of that environment as a soapboxy platform for political dialogue.
It stops raining in the aptly named town of Rio Seco before the novel even begins, and doesn't start again till 448 pages later. (A spoiler, and more will follow, but what do you expect from a novel called The Time It Never Rained?) Charlie Flagg, an aging epigone who arrived on the frontier a generation or two too late to suit his personality and his less rugged-individual peers, raises sheep for profit and cattle because a man isn't a man if he doesn't have a few cattle. Charlie wears whatever battered old clothes come to hand and has scrupulous contempt for anybody whose boots are shined and has a clean hat or pearl snaps on his shirt. Charlie will never own goats, feed his livestock prickly pear, obey a government regulation, or take a dime in subsidy or relief. He will not employ an illegal immigrant or turn one in to the border patrol; he will not suffer a coyote to live, turn a beggar away, shut up about his principles, or eat turnip greens. At some point in the novel all Charlie's self-commandments are put to the test by the years-long "drouth."
Charlie's fellow ranchers and farmers have mostly fallen into line with federal regulations in order to receive federal assistance. As Charlie puts it to an AP reporter in a characteristically unguarded moment, he's like a barn cat among housecats, and "I'd rather be classed with them go-getters out in the barn than with that old gravy-licker in the kitchen" (604). Various set-piece dialogues of this sort, pitting creeping socialism against the full Ayn-Rand playbook, dot the novel, and they are its next-to-weakest feature.
The weakest feature is one that Kelton surely meant to be among its most admirable, and was as progressive for Anglo-authored Western fiction genre in 1973 as it's dated now: the rendering of Mexican-American characters. Unlike Charlie himself, who is a mess of contradictory tendencies, some admirable and some awful, the Mexicans in The Time It Never Rained are either saints or devils. The Flores family, Charlie's faithful retainers, are in the sainted category. The embittered Chuy Garcia and the predatory Danny Ortiz are diabolical. Chuy and Manuel Flores have a couple of set-piece dialogues – combining the novel's weakest features – in which Chuy stands for revolutionary liberation and Manuel stands for duty and self-abnegation. None of this is plausible and all of it reads like a simplistic projection onto Mexican-Americans of what Kelton thinks they should be thinking. Yet for all that, Kelton was too good a writer to miss an irony. At several points, an Anglo character intervenes to help a Mexican, and Chuy's points about paternalism come to life. Manuel tells Charlie at one point: "It was my place, not yours" (487), to stand up for himself.
The men in the book scrap over women, revealing a third weakness that The Time It Never Rained shares with its entire genre: the women rarely stand up for themselves or anything. Charlie's wife Mary perseveres, almost entirely in her kitchen, and would never dream of taking a part-time job to keep the ranch viable; that would destroy Charlie's pride. Manuel and Danny fight over women – too many of the book's human conflicts come down to fistfights – and Manuel takes it poorly when the Anglo men intervene on his side in a fight over a woman. There is one "new woman" in the novel, who seems about a half-century dated even for 1973: Kathy Mauldin, daughter of an old friend of Charlie's. Kathy's role goes nowhere and she seems to be on the old-fashioned tomboy-to-spinster track.
The central argument of The Time It Never Rained is also flawed, though in a more interesting way. Charlie Flagg takes his penchant for independence to perverse extremes. He will not touch a cent of government aid, even indirectly; he resists any attempts to come to an accommodation with the modern world. He believes that federal assistance leads to ruin. Of course, private enterprise also leads to ruin in the novel, especially during drouth. Charlie becomes as dependent on private banker "Big" Rodale as his peers are on the government. But Charlie's faith, despite his experiences, lies in unaided individual effort. Nothing else is worthwhile. At times one gets the feeling that Charlie courts suffering, constantly tiptoeing around the brink of disaster. He prefers the agony of defeat.
None of this makes sense, because Charlie is not a subsistence farmer. His entire livelihood, as he well knows, is enmeshed with the market forces that set the price for his wool and his livestock. He is at much at the mercy of the "Boston buyers" as he is of the Washington bureaucrats, but he imagines that free markets make him more self-sufficient than managed markets. This is an ideological fiction, but it is a potent one and accounts for the tension and the incipient tragedy of the novel.
The great beauty of the novel is watching Charlie cope with the land, the sky, his animals, and the plants they depend on. Beauty, and ugliness too: a scene where the community gets together to kill a coyote who has been ravaging Charlie's sheep is insanely murderous, revealing a kind of bloodlust that Kelton later observes among rodeo fans: the toughness of rural life leads to a greater and greater appetite for violent amusements. Inevitably, the crowd fails to kill the coyote and Charlie succeeds in killing it all by himself – one gets the sense that no community, however many guns it totes and pickups it drives, is tough enough to compete with a Charlie Flagg aided only by his horse.
Jon Tuska called The Time It Never Rained "one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in [the 20th] century" (711). Don Graham mercilessly countered "I think we can all agree that Kelton was certainly the greatest western writer of all time named Elmer." Whichever side of that debate you lean toward, you need to read The Time It Never Rained if you want to come to terms with some tendencies in Texas fiction.
Kelton, Elmer. The Time It Never Rained. 1973. In Hot Iron and The Time It Never Rained. New York: Forge [Macmillan], 2019. pp. 237-705.