I don’t read very many westerns but the advance review that classified The Hell Bent Kid as one of the top 25 westerns ever written was just too tempting for me. It clearly was not hype. This novel is every bit as good as its billing. Also, just a little praise where praise is due—the fact that this book was published by Open Road was another point in its favor. In my experience, Open Road is a publisher that I count on for consistently high quality works of any genre, from classics to noir and now I can add westerns to that list. Just take a look at their list of titles and award winning authors and you will most likely agree.
It is interesting that I was reading this novel at the same time that my daughter was reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because they explore similar themes. Conrad’s novella argues for the inevitable corruption of man in the face of evil and the overwhelming power of the uncaring natural world. Tot, the protagonist The Hell Bent Kid, faces the desert much as Kurtz does the jungle. Equally deadly, both natural elements strip man of all the trappings, comforts and life-saving resources of civilization. While Kurtz was confronted, and ultimately corrupted by his interaction with an amoral and, to our view, evil primitive society, Tot faces the constant and deadly pursuit of “civilized” men who mean to kill him to avenge a life that he took in self defense. The men who follow him do not represent the law, but instead men of wealth and power who, at that time, were the actual face of civilized society when battles to the death were seen as high entertainment. But Tot is no Kurtz. As we follow him to his ultimate and natural, although still surprising, resolution of this conflict we see a man, a boy really, who is above both the evils bred in civilized society as well as the natural world—both of which sought to destroy him.
This book will clearly have a slot on my 2015 favorites list and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys not only westerns, but stories told in a sparse Hemingway style—which also employ the “iceberg” analogy of a simple story with most of the real meaning and value of the tale below the surface.
Compelling, tense, and beautifully written.
Great book. 5 stars. Masterpiece is not too strong a word.