Gene Hackman's Western is good novel

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 15, 2011

“Payback at Morning Peak,” by Gene Hackman. Pocket Books. 400 pp. Paperback. $7.99.
By Douglass K. Daniel
Associated Press
While some of his fellow actors were busy writing memoirs, Gene Hackman was working on his first solo novel. We know from movies like “Unforgiven” and “Bite the Bullet” that the Oscar winner can ride a horse, but how well can he wrangle Western fiction?
Just fine, it turns out.
“Payback at Morning Peak” is a satisfying revenge tale that takes place in New Mexico, a place Hackman called home long before he retired from the screen in 2004. He sets his story at a time when the American Southwest was still a lively and, at times, lawless frontier.
Just shy of 18, Jubal Young is a good boy schooled in literature by an educated mother and brought up on the land by an honest, hardworking father. When a dispute over their farm in the shadow of Morning Peak turns violent and Jubal loses all he loves, he tries to put aside a yearning for immediate retribution and to seek justice instead.
Justice isn’t easy to come by. Bad men set their own rules, and most lawmen don’t pay much attention to a teenager. That puts Jubal in the middle, leaving him the difficult task of pursuing a pack of killers without landing himself in jail or taking a bullet. His internal challenge isn’t to give in to vengeance and cruelty, lest his parents’ true legacy die with them.
Hackman has co-authored three historical novels since 1999. Writing on his own with “Payback at Morning Peak,” he takes aim at a clear target: telling a good story. He hits it, too, engaging the reader with interesting characters and a galloping plot with few stumbles. There is more than a bit of familiarity in the goings-on — the love interest is too predictable — and Jubal’s politeness can take the vigor out of a scene.In a sense, Hackman’s “Morning Peak” lies in Louis L’Amour country, a place where the conventions of the Western novel are as welcome as a man of honor and a pretty young lady. Riding a trail of his own making, Hackman takes hold of the reins with confidence.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).