Lucius Shepard,
Colonel Rutherford's Colt
(Subterranean Press, 2003)

Lucius Shepard's latest short novel (less than 200 pages) is about a couple who earn their living by selling guns at shows on a West Coast circuit. Rita Whitelaw is a tall, sexy realist with a demanding and aggressive personality. Jimmy Roy Guy appears to be her opposite -- a short, passive man addicted to dropping into a near-trance as stories related to the couple's guns develop in his mind. You have to laugh as grumpy conversations and actions show why these opposites attract. Idiosyncrasies and shortcomings are accepted or even valued as Rita and Jimmy take mutual advantage of each other.

The novel changes in tone and direction when a woman gives the couple a Colt .45 revolver on consignment and instructs them not to sell it to a right-wing militiaman named Raymond Borchard. The gun is the catalyst for a second story line, created in Jimmy's imagination, set in Cuba many years earlier. Jimmy imagines the gun was owned by Colonel Rutherford, a man we find has many character traits in common with Borchard.

The remainder of the book alternates between the two stories, expertly written in totally different styles, until they begin to merge as the novel nears its climax. Along the way the we gain insights into how storytellers decide what they will say. We also see how the stories and real life can interact.

Shepard has a complete and admirable set of skills. I started reading just after dinner, planning to get in an hour or so before watching some TV. Next thing I know, I've finished the book and missed a couple of favorite shows. Well, that's better, I thought, than missing sleep. But Shepard wasn't done with me yet. I lost sleep, too -- while trying to get over the uneasiness generated by his ultimately creepy characters and plot. Most of the book has the feel of a horror novel, though Shepard doesn't need elements of fantasy to achieve his effects. Instead they come from the disturbing craziness of his characters and an amoral narrative tone.

Shepard's economical technique makes his accomplishment even more impressive. While better known authors are pumping out self-indulgent 600-page works that editors ought to be cutting in half, he spends his time making every word and phrase count. No cliches or lazy thinking here. In place of something like, "her eyes stared bullets," you get, "He thought he could feel the black iron of her stare branding a two-eyed shape on the front of his brain." One of our first hints that Jimmy has a nasty side comes with his "face grew warm, and in his mind he felt anger slide forward, like a beast sneaking on its belly to something tasty."

Colonel Rutherford's Colt is a fine novel and I recommend it highly. Be aware that it includes scenes of sex and violence that will make it unsuitable for some readers, more fun for others.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 11 January 2003