Aug 9, 2009

Critical Monkey entry #2: The Justice Riders: The Best Little Roundhouse in Texas

In the second instalment of Critical Monkey, I risk a roundhouse kick to the head as I take on the might of literary heavyweight Chuck Norris and his debut novel:

The Justice Riders (!)
by Chuck Norris (!!), Ken Abraham (?), Aaron Norris (?!), and Tim Grayem (??)

Why I might hate it: I do try not to let people’s political or personal views mar my appreciation of their work, but let’s be real, that rarely works. I used to enjoy Orson Scott Card, but his virulent and grotesque attitude toward homosexuality has completely ruined any enjoyment of his work I once may have had. And Chuck? I once enjoyed his films in a pulpy sort of way—and make no mistake, there are some fairly strong movies in his filmography, especially Code of Silence, and he did raise the roundhouse kick to such an artform that he got himself an eight-year television series based solely on his ability to spin in the air, wear a cowboy hat, and grow a beard—but as he’s aged, he’s transformed himself from a B-movie action star and Soloflex hypester into that mainstay of almost all D-list celebrities, a born-again, bitter right-wing shill, a religious fundamentalist and all-round unpleasant crackpot, eager to espouse any nutjob political theory, unsure if Barack Obama is an American, and unaware that his celebrity caché has withered to the point where he is an object of camp and outright derision. But hey, as long as he’s still getting his face out there, right? And lately, the trend of ‘celebrities’ getting book deals has reached the point where there is no more humour to be had. When 'celebrity' Lauren Conrad gets a three-book deal, it’s time to admit that irony is well and truly dead, and satire is a thing to set on the museum shelves next to the dodo.

Why I might like it: It’s a long shot, but the Chuckster did not write this opus alone, no, no. He brought along three people to help fine-tune the tale. Surely four people, working together, could craft something worth reading.

The book: dear god. Four people who can't write equals a novel four times as bad as normal.

Perhaps all you need to know is this; on page twelve, in the middle of a Civil War battle, the hero roundhouse kicks an opponent. I’ll repeat that; in the middle of a Civil War battle, there is a roundhouse kick to the face. I am not a Civil War historian and cannot with any accuracy comment on the fighting styles of the time. Nor do I believe that a fiction narrative must be rigidly bound to its setting without room for imagination. I’m not saying that there were no roundhouse kicks in the time period, or that a soldier fighting for the Union army could never have that skill. I actually don’t know what I’m saying, as I am positive that roundhouse kick smushed my brain into goop.

But there’s still 283 pages to go, so…

The Justice Riders concerns the exploits of Chuck Norris/Ezra Justice, a captain in the Union, fighting for the north in the Civil War (check out that cover for my confusion as to his identity). I should mention here that Team Norris has already etched a place in my heart, as I have always harboured a fondness for novels wherein the lead character’s name takes a less-than-obvious place in the title, such as in Karen Kijewski’s Kat Scratch Fever (protagonist – Kat Colorado), Robert B. Parker’s Stone Cold (Jesse Stone), Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (Old Man), and Joanne Fluke’s Cherry Cheesecake Murder (Professor Cornelius X. Cheesecake).

Ezra Justice leads (wait for it) The Justice Riders, an elite group of men known both for their skill in warfare and their ability to be practically indistinguishable from each other except for exceptionally broad stereotypical traits. There’s the Irish drinker and fighter named Shaun O’Banyon (presumably because Fighty O’Drinkington was already taken); Harry Whitecloud, the well educated half-breed Indian tracker; Roberto and Carlos Hawkins, the gypsy thieves; Nathaniel “Big Nate” York, former slave of Justice (although The Norris Gang takes pains to point out that this was only because of Ezra’s family that he owned Nate, and he himself was having none of it); and Reginald Bonesteel, English sharpshooter and winner of Britain’s Most Foppish Yet Manly Name Award 1864.

Together, the Justice Riders go head-to-head against the Confederate version of their gang, the (wait for it) Death Raiders, led by “the type of man that men feared and women could not resist,” the hissible villain Mordecai Slate (again, presumably because Snidely McBadGuy was busy that week).

I don’t mean to be snarky, but boy howdy, it’s just. So. Easy. I mean, sure, Twilight (my previous entry in Critical Monkey 2009) was poorly written, but it’s target audience was the younger set. The Justice Riders is aimed at adults, so when you get writing such as
Slate sat high on his horse, his revolver aimed at Ezra’s chest. “Justice!” he called. “How about some of Mordecai Slate’s brand of justice?”
well, you pretty much give up any hope of a finely-tuned western a la Larry McMurtry, and the best you can wish for is a broad oater along the lines of the worst of John Wayne (i.e. most of the films not directed by John Ford).

Even by those deeply lowered expectations, The Justice Riders is absolutely garbage, only earning any entertainment value from the hooting, derisive laughter it provokes.

A huge portion of The Justice Riders’ failure as a novel is in its inability to recognize its place as a novel, rather than a movie. The character do not talk to one another, they speechify. Take this typical question from O’Banyon:
“Now that General Joe Johnston and his boys have been slowed down, are we going to keep chasing them, trying to distract them like we did Hood’s infantry and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry back in Franklin a few months back?”
No one talks like this. Only in poorly written movies do people talk like this, filling in the audience with seemingly important exposition. These men have been hardened in battle together, they have lived these adventures, there is no reason for them to fill in the blank spots, yet at every opportunity they fill in each other as if this is the first time each has heard the story. Rather than use the form of the novel to fill in exposition through backstory or inner monologues, everything is said out loud, leading the reader to assume that, wounded in battle, the Justice Riders collectively suffer from short-term memory loss, and only the constant repetition of their past exploits keeps their memories alive. And as much as I admire the moxie of a novel that actually contains the utterance, “You’ve got to be…aarraghh! Help!” I must cry foul on the literary merit of The Justice Riders as a whole.

More concerning, however, is the queasy addition of Christian themes, an ill fit considering Ezra’s penchant for killing all who oppose him in his path. I wouldn’t normally comment on such moral themes, but as Norris Plus Three continually bring it up, the hypocrisy of a novel that makes claims to a Christian belief system yet has no compunction against the ‘justifiable’ killing of others is fair game. There’s no room for introspection in Team Roundhouse’s west, and aside for a single paragraph where Ezra considers that Confederacy soldiers may believe they are on God’s side equally as much as he believes it about himself, there’s no discussion other than ‘our way or no way.’ There are good, solid novels out there about the interplay of religious teachings and personal actions, but this ain’t it. And as Ezra and his men preach to dying soldiers about the importance of embracing Jesus before they die, the utterly despicable nature behind The Justice Riders becomes abundantly clear. This is preaching love while practising death, and The Chuckmeister Four revel in their false virtue.

But then Ezra goes and kills a crocodile with a knife, and all is right again. And as Ezra actually considers hitting on a woman whose husband and child died not hours before, his stature as a man’s man is all but assured, so who cares how many people he's killed. He's still a simple, godly man, so it'll all work out.

In conclusion, The Justice Riders is more than poorly written claptrap, although that would usually be bad enough. There is enough shoddy plotting, needless digressions, and ridiculous dialogue to fill a dozen bad novels. But as an extra, the Beard Posse’s tale is morally repugnant to boot.



Cam said...

I would like to join your challenge! What date will it go till?

Corey said...

Please join, the more the merrier. Or misery loves company. Or something.

Anyway, it'll go until July 2, 2010, plenty of time to read. Just put links to your reviews in the comments sections of these posts, and I'll update everyone once a month.

Lynn said...

Brilliant review. :)

Cam said...

Great! Thanks--this should be fun. =)

Remi said...

Chuck Norris is such a bad writer. . . He needs three hacks to write a crappy novel.

Mark said...

I hate to quibble, but didn't Reginald Bonesteel actually win the Homoerotic Twit Name of the Year Award (1964).

I'm pretty sure that if someone tried to kick me in the face during the Battle of Antietam, I would just stab him with my bayonet. (Unless my rifle was loaded.) Perhaps we shouldn't blame Reginald, as war is a suggestive business.

I have no idea what I should read and review first; you have raised the bar rather high!

Lori L said...

I did it! My first Critical Monkey book, Pride and Prejudice. I've avoided reading it for years.

Corey said...

Good for you! And a good choice! I'll admit that P&P is the only Austen I've read, and I found it a bit of a slog. But compared to what I've read for Critical monkey, it is indeed a masterpiece.

Monica said...

Very nicely done. I love your reviews. I used to be a huge fan of Chuck, but that was before i learned what a jerk he seems to be.

Thanks for enduring that book, so the rest of us know to avoid it.

Al said...

I can almost come at the personal edification side of your challenge. I will read "Grapes of Wrath" someday I am sure.
But surely life is too short for the likes of Chuck's fiction?
Even for a dedicated self flagellator, it must be past the limits of human suffering to descend so low?

Corey said...

Well, I suffer, so you don't have to.

Scott said...

A little off topic ...

Corey said: "I used to enjoy Orson Scott Card, but his virulent and grotesque attitude toward homosexuality has completely ruined any enjoyment of his work I once may have had."

You too, eh? I loved "Pastwatch" and still list it as one of my favorite all-time books. But I usually shake my head when saying/typing it. I haven't read anything by him since I read about his opinions.

Corey said...

Yeah, and there's a new bit about some sci-fi writer named John Wright (?) who's gone ape-s#it insane with his new "christian" leanings, which apparently include intolerance and hate.

BTW, don't give up on Clive Barker. Mister B Gone was not his best, but The Damnation Game is one of the finest horror novels I've ever read, and Weaveworld is an urban fantasy masterpiece.

Steve said...

Another dust-gatherer finished off! Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

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