Thomas Cobb is one of America’s grotesquely underrated national treasures. He is the author of Crazy Heart, which was made into a movie with Jeff Bridges (who was also an underrated national treasure until Crazy Heart, when he finally won a long overdue Academy Award, one of two for the movie, and one of the three nominations the movie received), and the almost unheard of novel Shavetail, which is about as close to perfection as a novel can get. A possible reason why Cobb is not as well-known and revered (and rich and famous) as he should be is that he that he breaks a lot of rules in his story-telling, and judging by some of the negative customer reviews he has gotten, this rule-breaking is caviar to the general. I’m not sure why. Faulkner, Steinbeck, McCarthy all broke (break, in McCarthy’s case) a lot of rules, and I believe all of them ended up affluent and well known.
With Blood in Their Eyes is a paradigm of rule-breaking. The story opens with the dramatic climax and bounces backward and forward from there. The heroes are unlovable villains, the villains are on the side of truth and justice and the American way (at least as the American way was in 1918) and the most sympathetic character is killed on the first page. If you want William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy triumphing over the forces of evil sequentially from A to Z, this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you want a meticulously researched account of a historical miscarriage of justice, transformed into unforgettable fiction by a master, sit back and enjoy.
The Power Brothers’ shootout was the single bloodiest shootout in Arizona history, an event that left the entire Graham County Sheriff’s Department dead and resulted in the largest manhunt in Arizona history. That’s the surface story of With Blood in Their Eyes, but it is the story behind the facts that Cobb brings so deftly to life. History is always written by the victors and our view of events is shaped by them. Cobb’s careful research reveals a different point of view, one far more complex and compelling than the basic historical facts, and his ability to breathe life into all his characters, lovable and unlovable alike, results in an unforgettable novel of courage and endurance and the ambiguity of right and wrong.
In case you are put off by references to Faulkner or McCarthy, I should point out that while Cobb’s plot structure is fluid and bounces back and forth in time, his writing is much closer to Steinbeck in his straightforward use of language. Straightforward, but immensely evocative:
“There was a clatter and ringing of bells as horses rushed past them. McBride threw himself to the side of the trail and let the horses get by. They must be Power horses, he thought, spooked by Haynes, who had fallen behind him. ‘Throw up your hands,’ McBride heard, and knew that it had all gone bad.”
Thomas Cobb understands both the mythology and the reality of the place and time we call the West. He also understands that our vision of the reality of the past is touched by its mythology and made bigger by it, unforgettable. And oh so readable.