1860s, anti-romanticism, bleeding Kansas, book review, Civil War, Dickensian coincidences, draft riot, George Armstrong Custer, historical fiction, Jesse James, Jim Bridger, literary fiction, Loren D. Estleman, music as truth, New York, Old West, picaresque, voice
Review: Billy Gashade, by Loren D. Estleman
Forge, 1997. 351 pp. $12
One broiling day in July 1863, a sixteen-year-old Manhattan youth wanders into riots sparked by Irish workingmen angry at Lincoln’s new conscription law. Pushed by corrupt politicians, they nevertheless have a serious gripe. Men with three hundred dollars to spare may pay for a replacement if their name is drawn; everyone else must serve in the Union Army. This injustice should have no immediate bearing on our teenage interloper, not yet of military age and born to a sheltered existence as the son of a prosperous judge. But for the first time in his life, he steps forward into the breach and uses his soft, musician’s hands to stand up for someone else.
For his trouble, he earns a wicked concussion. A brothel madam takes the boy in, and when the grateful convalescent manages to restore and play the house’s damaged piano, he makes friends. He’ll need them, because there’s now a price on his head—during the riot, he wounded an ally of the infamous, powerful Boss Tweed, and getting out of town is the only answer. Taking the name Billy Gashade, he goes west.
Billy gets a job playing piano in another brothel, this one in Lawrence, Kansas, where he again winds up in a melee, this one between Federal forces and rebel militia. But though violence shapes much of Billy’s story, and its misuses and lust for it furnish key themes, the narrative really describes the character of the Old West, and the difference between the romantic legends and the truth, as Billy sees it. And he witnesses much firsthand, for he makes the acquaintance of many well-known figures, most particularly Jesse and Frank James, but also Jim Bridger, Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer, and a raft of others. However, Estleman properly resists the temptation to let Billy witness the best-known scenes (the Last Stand, for instance), which would have twisted the story into a pretzel; the author knows how to make first-rate drama out of less iconic material. This narrative, though with plot aplenty, gets its drive from character.
Billy Gashade is a yarn par excellence, yet it’s more than that, continually pointing out the differences between haves and have-nots in the eyes of their fellow creatures and the “law,” like as not a corrupt, blunt instrument. Billy’s music seems the only voice of peace and understanding, and the locales in which he plies his art are beautifully conveyed. Depicting those circumstances is one way the narrative takes a bristle brush to the sheen of romance, scuffing it mightily. The Kansas sections in particular revise notions about which side has the moral high ground, abolitionist or proslavery, for the warriors fighting for each are murdering scum. Estleman forces us to take a harder look at the received wisdom we’ve been handed about the Civil War, always a useful exercise.
The author tells his tale in retrospect from 1935, a technique I’ve never liked, but it doesn’t intrude here, because only the very beginning and end take place then. The beginning sets Billy up as the man who’s seen it all and establishes his authority, as reliable narrator and a voice you want to listen to. The story also contains as many coincidences as any three Dickens novels combined, but I don’t mind; often, I’m just as happy to meet old friends as Billy is.
But it’s not just the ride through Billy’s life that leads you on. It’s that irresistible voice:
I have ever been curious, an incurable affliction and nearly always personally disastrous. When I was five I climbed by means of a construction of ottomans, pillows, and the works of Sir Walter Scott to the top of an eighteenth-century chifforobe in my parents’ bedroom, only to burn my hand badly in the pretty blue flame of the gas jet that had inspired the ascent. Alas, it was not a learning experience. As many times since then as my Need to Know a Thing has landed me in foul soup, I would in my present extremity sooner chase a siren than dine on pheasant. In 1863 I nearly died of this condition.
At times, however, I feel that Estleman has replaced one romantic view with another. I don’t find Confederate guerrillas-turned-bank robbers appealing in either guise, so Jesse James repels me. I’ll grant that Billy’s quip about James’s gift for singing is one of the best lines in the book: “I’ve always believed that the world lost a good tenor when Jesse James took to robbing stages instead of appearing on them.” To an extent, Estleman’s trying to tell us our romantic heroes don’t deserve our admiration. Yet Billy’s fond of James and worries that the law will get him, though he knows better than most people what the man has done.
Still, Billy Gashade has much to offer. The wandering minstrel’s travels provide wit, humor, and an education, a tale you can wade into with gusto, and a vision of the Old West you might not find anywhere else.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.