Up north, whenever I could get out of the store I’d go out on the desert–lots of big ranches up there–and ride after cattle. I liked it and it kept my blood running; but down here I didn’t even have a store to try to get out of. I’d sit in the cafe and rechew the newspapers, and when I couldn’t take it any more of that I’d go out and drive my pickup around on these desert roads, which are all straight as strings and numbered A to Z in one direction (running east to west) and 1 to 100 in the other, with every tenth one laid right along the section line; easy to find your way wherever you wanted to go, but I didn’t know where that was. After a couple of weeks I began to think, “Well, if this is heaven I’ve had enough of it,” and I decided to go out and shop for a horse.
Max Schott has published just four slim books–barely 700 pages put together–in the space of 30 years. Even at that, he’d probably claim Pascal’s shortcoming (“I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter”).
Though he taught for over thirty years as a member of the English faculty at the University of California Santa Barbara, horses, not words, were Schott’s first love. A Santa Barbara native, as a kid he dreamed of being a cowboy. When he was able to head out on his own, he headed for the high desert country, where he learned to train horses and started competing on the rodeo circuit. He lived the life of a modern cowpoke for close to fifteen years before deciding it wasn’t how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. So he headed back to Santa Barbara, got his degrees, earned a spot on the faculty, and settled in for a life of teaching and writing.
His first book, a collection of short stories published through much of the 1970s, Up Where I Used to Live, came out from the University of Illinois Press in 1978. It was part of the Illinois Short Fiction series, a noteworthy series that published some of the best short story writers of the 1970s and 1980s–Jean Thompson, Barry Targan, Kent Nelson, Andrew Fetler, H. E. Francis, among others. Schott’s stories drew on his experiences with horses and rodeos, but what drew me in when I first read them shortly after the book came out was his tone: spare, dry, self-effacing, a bit tired, and mildly amused at the world’s foolishness.
Most of Schott’s stories are told in the first person. His narrators come from the world of horses, ranches, and large, sparse, dry places. Schott’s diction perfectly matches his characters: simple, laconic, but with a sly grin. This is a world where the last thing a man’d want to be know as is talkative. Better to keep your mouth shut than to run on like a woman. Hell, even the women in Schott’s world are careful with their words. It’s a world where words are like water–something you don’t waste.
This might explain why Schott has published so little. But not why he’s barely known outside a lucky circle of loyal readers. After all, he had a shot at the big time when his first novel, Murphy’s Romance (1980), was adapted and filmed by Martin Ritt. Unfortunately for Schott, Ritt quickly disposed with most of the story and setting and created a largely new narrative from the remnants. Ritt kept the title, which might at least have pulled in a few unsuspecting readers for Schott’s book, but there was no movie tie-in reprint.
Murphy’s Romance grew out of “The Old Flame,” one of the stories in Up Where I Used to Live. The title is actually a bit of fun on Schott’s part. Murphy Jones, a rancher retired to Pearblossom, California after some decades in eastern Oregon, briefly considers romancing Toni Wilson, a no-nonsense and very independent horse trainer, but ends up marrying her aunt Margaret instead. Though Murphy narrates the book, most of the story is about Toni’s turbulent engagement and marriage to Ben Webber, a rodeo vet in his fifties.
Schott carried the story forward–or backwards, rather–in his second novel, Ben. He takes us back to Ben Webber’s first marriage, which was even stormier, but this time we hear the story from Max, a young man probably close to Schott’s own age when he first got into the horse business. We’re still in the world of horses and tough men and women. Even when Ben gets drunk and throws up, Max notes that he has enough self control to do it “all neatly, like a man who knew how.” In the book, Max has to deal with the death of his mother from cancer, but fenced in by the likes of Ben and the other horse men, there’s little risk of getting into anything too sentimental. The only thing gooey in the book is a body accidentally tossed under a bronco’s hooves.
All three books manage to pack a great deal into very slim packages. “Just a chip, then, this little book–but gold all the way through,” Kirkus Reviews wrote of Murphy’s Romance, and the same could be said of Up Where I Used to Live and Ben. Throughout all his fiction, Schott creates remarkably rich and subtle characterizations with the slightest of strokes. The art is all in making it seem completely artless. If he’d lived in Japan he would probably have become a Zen master.
His most recent book, Keeping Warm: Essays and Stories, published in 2004 by the Santa Barbara-based John Daniel and Company, collects short pieces from magazines and newspapers published over the course of the last thirty years. His most intimate piece in the book, “Diary About My Father,” collects reflections on his father’s life and Schott’s relationship with him, and reveals that that same spare, understated voice heard throughout his fiction is Schott’s own:
He died two years ago today. At about two in the morning, so that to us it seemed like the night of the day before–which was five years to the day after Mom died.
After being ill for how long, fifty years? Sixty? She slipped away so easily.
A few years ago, if someone had said to me, “He behaved towards her like a saint,” I would’ve said, or wanted to say, “Yes, but I don’t like saints.” But now it seems to me that the truth is much simpler. No saint, but a man in a situation not of his own making, he did as well as he could.
I think most of Schott’s horsemen would be happy to have that last sentence for their epitaphs.
We might not see another book from Schott, who’s now in his late seventies. But any of the ones he’s already written will do as well as any could to convey his uniquely Western voice and outlook. Forget the movie of “Murphy’s Romance”–do yourself a favor and find the book instead.