The place is Aqua Fría, a nothing town in the middle of nowhere, fast running out of water and hope. The players are The Ranger, a man destined from birth to wear a badge and uphold the law; Red, leader of a gang of thieves and killers, a man destined from birth to be The Ranger’s nemesis; the various residents of Aqua Fría and members of Red’s gang; a horse with no name, but with a hole in its head; and last but certainly not least, a crafty camel spider.
How exactly that all fits together is a bit too complicated to explain, but suffice it to say that those who didn’t hightail it out of Aqua Fría before the wells ran dry are now staring at a ticking clock: three days until they die of dehydration. Three days to make their peace and square up their debts, earthly and spiritual. Three days to, perhaps, find some way out of the hell they are quickly descending into.
Folks, Pig Iron, the latest from David James Keaton, is not your daddy’s Western. That is, not unless your daddy dropped a lot of acid and was particularly fond of camel spiders and walking-dead horses.
Keaton, who has a well-established reputation for thumbing his nose at the establishment and status quo (Fish Bites Cop! Stories To Bash Authorities) and approaching things from a slightly left of center perspective (The Last Projector), has now brought his marvelous brand of authorial madness to the Western. And while at its core Pig Iron is a classic good vs. evil yarn, it is anything but conventional, arguably more supernatural than Western, its imagery a bizarre mashup of John Ford and Federico Fellini.
Tom and the Ranger both lean back to watch the remainder of the two convoys trample into the black rocks. … The longer the line goes, the more backwards and primal the people seem to get. Further down, two children are fighting over half of something dead. Further past that fight, wild-eyed men are struggling to eat something that’s still alive. Further past them, a wild-eyed woman is devouring something thick and pink that she won’t let anyone see, an expression of pure pleasure on her face, as if she can’t believe the miracle sustenance she’s discovered, a tiny blue bonnet hangs from her red chin like a bib. And when the tail end of the caravan finally passses by, all the people slumped forward on these horses are clearly dead, long past dead really and now something else, like a wind-up army of corpses that keeps pace with the rest nonetheless.
Forget spaghetti Westerns, Keaton is serving up a heaping helping of acid Western.
Pig Iron is a perfect book for those who love Westerns…as well as for those who don’t. You see, Keaton has managed to walk the finest of lines in Pig Iron, both celebrating the familiar components one has come to associate with a classic Western, all while subtly and subversively burning those same standards to the ground. Both the white and black hats are here, it’s just that Keaton takes pleasure in poking a little fun at who’s wearing them, and why, and does it all with tremendous flare and more than a few made-up words and turns of phrase in the process—there’s even a handy glossary included that is as entertaining to read as the story itself.
So saddle up and head out to Aqua Fría. Just be sure to bring a lot of water with you…and beware the camel spider.
Pig Iron is available from Burnt Bridge (ISBN: 978-1941601037).