When Ben gets a chance to leave his New Mexico home to visit his childhood friend in Hollywood, he jumps at it. 1930s Beverly Hills is full of bait and switch tricks that Ben just isn’t used to, especially when he meets up with Johnny, someone he knew a long time ago, better than he’s known anyone since. Between actors, studios and Tom’s suspicious wife, Ben thinks he’s walked into the lion’s den.
Luckily, Johnny is willing to help out, and becomes Ben’s guide through the tricky world of moving pictures. Ben thinks he might like to make Hollywood a more permanent part of his life, but not everyone and everything are as they seem. Can Ben find a way to reconcile all the pieces of his new life, or will he and Johnny have to part ways?
Reviewed by Jean Roberta
The ‘Spurs and Saddles’ line from Torquere Press consists of same-sex romances about cowboys in various settings and eras. Forget John Wayne and old reruns of Gunsmoke. These stories completely rewrite the ‘western’ genre.
Lucius Parhelion does a brilliant job of describing same-sex relationships in a time when “coming out” was so dangerous that double-entendres, secret signs and discreet meeting-places were absolutely necessary. And the “gay culture” of the time existed only in cities.
In this novella, a ranch owner in 1920’s New Mexico suspects that he might be a “Nancy boy.” He is only about as old as the century, so he can’t be absolutely sure. If a young man likes the fit of another fellow’s trousers, he doesn’t ask his old friends for advice on how to go courtin’. And whatever he does, you can be sure he does it in secret as long as he’s living on the family ranch.
But what if oil is discovered on Ben’s land just before the Stock Market crash of 1929? Well then, Ben is one lucky son-of-a-gun. And his opportunities sure open up.
There isn’t a lot of explicit sex in this rollicking tale, but the action is fast-paced, the dialogue sparkles, and the details are true to the period. The reader learns early that Ben is no fool in high-stakes negotiations:
‘For years, Ben McClure had battled land, cattle and climate to try to win a hard living from the high plains ranch that had been his father’s dream come true. This year, for no better reason than luck, that fight was over and Ben had won. Not that his victory had come easily. In Ben’s opinion, any negotiations in a new and booming oil patch were a lot like being sewn up in a canvas sack with five snakes, four of which were diamondbacks, and then having someone kick the bag. But Ben’s pa had known everyone who settled this part of the Llano Escatado, the stake plains, so Ben knew them all too.’
So now that Ben can afford to travel, where does he want to go? He wants to follow Tom, the handsomest man he ever met, to Hollywood, California, where Tom is burning up the screen as a ‘cowboy’ in moving pictures. Along the way, Tom married a diva, a blonde spitfire named Miss Inez Altura. Tom didn’t mention her in the two letters he sent to Ben, inviting him to come for a visit.
When Ben rolls into California in the most luxurious train carriage available, he finds some new surprises. His first view of the local sights is impressive: ‘So far, the men in Hollywood were an awfully fine looking lot.’
The movie cameraman who asks Ben if he’s an ‘extra’ looks strangely familiar. Then Ben recognizes him:
‘You’re Janos. Your pa was Mr. Kovacs, the peddler who took photographs and fell so ill. James Kovacs.’
‘Johnny Smith now.’ He could see the Adam’s apple shift as Johnny swallowed. Ben could not blame him. He felt a touch queasy himself. They had not known each other long; but, thanks to Tom, their few weeks spent together had been real memorable.
Johnny takes Ben to the Red Gulch, a ranch north of Hollywood that serves as a set for western movies. Ben’s wrangling skills come in handy, but the bright and perky Miss Blake is a little harder to handle than a horse. Is she sweet on Ben?
Johnny learns that the motion picture business is all about appearances. Just as the Grade B pictures that Johnny films don’t bear much resemblance to ranch life as Ben has lived it, the boy-meets-girl ‘romance’ in the pictures is a cover for a whole other way of doing things. Ben learns how he can get ‘paid’ for helping Johnny out, and he also learns that a bigger company is very interested in the Red Gulch. And ‘Oil Well Ben,’ as Tom calls him, is holding all the aces.
Tom the movie star doesn’t appear in the story until about halfway through, and by then his appearance has been long anticipated. How has he become so famous so fast? Is his marriage with Miss Altura a Hollywood ‘arrangement,’ a friendly understanding or a love-match? Has he bamboozled Ben, or does he intend to?
For that matter, why is booze so easy to find when it can’t be legally bought or sold?
Ben shows himself to be shrewd when he needs to be. He is no stranger to maverick cattle or slick dealers. Love, however, is a new experience for him. While figuring out how to win at the poker game of the motion picture business in hard economic times, Ben also needs to learn who is really on his side, and whose side he wants to be on.
If you can never openly tell the truth about how you really feel, is there a place for flirting, courtship, flowers and valentines? Ben and the partner of his dreams have to answer that question for themselves. From beginning to end, this twentieth-century ‘western’ is a wild and witty ride.