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The Horse Thieves, and Other Tales of the New West Paperback – July 14, 2014
About the Author
Patrick Scalisi is a journalist, magazine editor and emerging author from Connecticut. He has published fiction in several magazines, including The Willows, Neo-opsis and ReadShortFiction.com, among others. His short stories have appeared in a number of fiction anthologies, including An Honest Lie Vol. 2, Shadowplay and Penny Dread Tales Vol. 1. Pat also had the opportunity to serve as the guest editor of The Ghost Is the Machine, a bestselling anthology of steampunk-horror stories from Post Mortem Press. When he's not writing, Pat enjoys watching way too many movies than are good for him, reading more books than he has shelves for and listening to music (his tastes range from classical to classic and modern rock).
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Top Customer Reviews
Disclosure: I (the reviewer) know(s) the author of the title under review.
As someone always excited by the prospect of being there “at the beginning” of a writer’s career, a fan of solid story-telling, and Westerns (albeit the cinematic rather than written genre, the latter of which I have not read nearly enough), I couldn’t resist a book with a title like The Horse Thieves and Other Tales of the New West. Patrick Scalisi’s debut collection of “tales” is more akin to a novel in that plots of each tale interconnect, the characters remain the same story to story, and each tale of the collection is enriched by having read the book in its entirety. I enjoyed getting to know the characters more with each passing tale, learning of what makes them tick mostly by what they say, what they do and—even more—how they react to what other people do to them. Rather unsurprisingly, the latter aspect is what makes The Horse Thieves the most successful.
The first five stories are sharp little pieces of suspense, action, and quick thrills—interspersed with seemingly-familiar glimpses of diluvial-deprived vistas—that build beautifully to the last story, “Shots from a Chrome Revolver,” which functions more like a novella. Overall, the pacing of The Horse Thieves is a steady canter that, while never truly reaching a solid gallop, feels fluid, engaging, and consistently maintained throughout. I wasn’t reminded of any other authors’ styles of writing while reading Patrick Scalisi’s book—which is promising. The narratorial voice is crisp, clean, and forward-moving—just as a true cowboy, with a no-nonsense attitude—would sound. A cowboy wouldn’t put on frills, and Scalisi’s prose is true to this vision.
To continue, any doubt that The Horse Thieves isn’t a labor of love for Scalisi is quickly snuffed from reading the first few pages of the opening, eponymous story of the collection, for the author spares no expense in cutting to the chase and wanting to tell a compelling story of adventure and intrigue rather than use this debut as an exercise in lofty vocabulary (often the problem with first-time authors). Quips and barbs exchanged among characters are present but scarcely overdone. The tone feels consistent and relevant to the stories themselves. In short, there is a lot of punch packed into this pony-sized work of just over 160 pages. I read the book in one sitting and found myself thumbing back through some of the earlier stories, simply to try to figure out more of the “pieces” of each character’s personality.
On the surface, this book takes its starting point from an economic angle: in the New West, struggling car companies are the order of the day, and a single company called Yoshimitsu Automobiles purchased all the flailing companies. Voila—Consolidated Motor Corporation (CMC) was born, gobbling up land for its “ranches” in which to “breed horses.” And by “horses,” we mean automobiles. Mix in a few money-hungry baddies, the shades-of-grey hero John Elliott Crawford, a mysterious CMC president with the rightly-pompous-sounding name Darwin E. Hayes, coveted items from secret safes, thefts, schemes, and a few clever jibes to salt the dialogue, and you have the world of The Horse Thieves.
In this “New West,” where the modern-day (magnum revolvers that harken back to the early twentieth-century and bootleggers; automobiles of various invented models; and some lingo here and there that sounds a tad too twenty-first century) intermingles with glimpses of Romanticized notions of the Old West (gunslingers, saloon girls, poker matches, kidnapping, and plenty of dust on the trail), it’s hard to pinpoint a particular era. In one sense, the lack of a clear time-frame makes it difficult to envision as fully as possible an actual existence of this “New West.” Is it “New” because it occurs after the “Old West” of Manifest Destiny fame? Is it “New” because it is somewhere in our future? After all, real horses seem extinct! A progressively-voracious automobile industry—or any technological industry—in general seems believable, as does the extinction of any species of animal with time, unfortunately. A reference to “halogen bulbs,” for example, furthers the illusion that this is some “forgotten” time in history, sometime between the urging to “go West, young man!” in the middle of the nineteenth century until a hundred years later. After all, halogen gas lamps were first used at the end of the 1800s and used and marketed well into the twentieth century. The presence of toll booths also lends no real clues: such required payment on turnpikes have been in place in the U.S.A. since the end of the eighteenth century. As I read The Horse Thieves, I felt like a sleuth trying to piece together a timeline—and ultimately gave up.
In another sense, though, Scalisi’s ambiguity of time is at least tempered by some spatial specifications. For instance, San Francisco finds its footing in The Horse Thieves, thereby reminding readers that they’re still watching events unfold as they happen on Earth. The writer isn’t recreating the universe—he’s recrafting reality, and because so many authors do just this with their own works of every genre, perhaps Scalisi faced the challenge of doing something new and unique to separate his fictional world from those of other semi-fantastic tales. What Patrick Scalisi does, then, in The Horse Thieves and Other Tales of the New West is focus (and fairly well) on reappropriating the cowboy/horse relationship and turning it into a modern-cowboy / “horse” relationship. After all, and as mentioned earlier, in the world of this collection, “horses” are actually automobiles. While most of the terminology typically applied to the equine—hitching, saddling-up, mounting, riding, shoeing—can be applied to the motions used to getting into a car with little stretch of the imagination, there are a few more hesitant moments. It’s hard to envision, for instance, someone sitting “side-saddle” unless her feet are squashed up against the door, or hanging out a door-less jeep (or “horse”). For the most part, Scalisi does a strong job of ensuring that his “horses” are described with consistency, honesty, and creativity, but a little more smoothing out some of the equine-related language would not have gone amiss.
The truth strength of The Horse Thieves is the creation of its protagonist, John Elliott Crawford, our lone cowboy (though, he does have a lady, naturally), who seems to scrape by a living by getting into scrapes, if you will. Rough around the edges and rather straightforward in his demeanor, Crawford is a gun-for-hire living paycheck to paycheck, spending lots of time ruminating about how to better care for his “horse” as much as he does for his love, Norma (whose feminized car is called a “mare”). Whether or not Crawford loves his “horse” or Norma more is up for debate, and I would have loved a story told from Norma’s perspective. The story collection shifts among some short moments of the domestic to leisurely lunches on cold beer and beef sandwiches from McGee’s to shoot-outs in the dessert. A traveling troupe of magicians, a “rodeo,” kidnappings, double-crossing, and familial pasts all emerge in The Horse Thieves, making it a collection of stories that truly does have a little bit of everything in it.
But more than a clever, exciting “gunslinger” collection of tales, The Horse Thieves just may have a more thought-provoking angle. This debut work from Patrick Scalisi gives a new meaning to “horse power” and the metaphorical way in which we gauge our technology’s success via natural-sounding euphemisms that conceal just how man-made (read: artificial, greedy, and cannibalizing) is the world around us. It’s a collection that made me wonder at the possibility of phasing-out nature, replacing it with mechanisms, and making a sad attempt to return to a foregone era by calling things by names that only remind of what they aren’t. To call a hunk of metal with an engine and four rubber tires a “horse” feels amusing and surprising in “The Horse Thieves” but, by the final story, underscores a more pressing issue regarding the loss of nature—the natural world, the natural state of things, and human nature. When grown men who can beat the baddies seem seconds away from breaking down into tears at “putting down a horse,” so to speak—or ruining a car—a reader can at least somewhat consider how such elements of the story collection suggest an unnatural attachment to things, even while our society continues to grow more and more desensitized to the plight of others.
All in all, The Horse Thieves and Other Tales of the New West held my attention and, as intimated above, spurred my thinking onward in an unforeseen way. Whether Scalisi intended for this to happen or not, I can’t say, but it likely doesn’t matter: sometimes, the stories tell themselves. Perhaps The Horse Thieves got a little loose in the bit towards the end, beginning to run wild and away from a rather claustrophobic world of the New West—which is how it feels by the finale. Ultimately, Scalisi’s is a collection worth a leisurely read—unhitch it from its post, jump in the saddle, and take The Horse Thieves out for a ride.
The western conceit doesn't fit perfectly--cars with model names taken from horses stolen by "rustlers" feels pretty organic, but calling an automotive engineer a breeder doesn't--but it doesn't become distracting. Some of the classic tropes of the genre are incorporated; one story definitely borrows a bit from 'The Magnificent Seven.' One the whole, it's a fun little book well worth checking out.