Charles O. Locke’s 1957 novel, “The Hell Bent Kid,” centers around a teenager, Tot Lohman, who is forced to defend himself at a schoolhouse dance and winds up killing Shorty Boyd, the son of a violent, vengeful cattle baron. Lohman finds himself on the wrong side of the power barons, especially Shorty’s dad, and though he broke no laws, the law is no help. Lohman heads to New Mexico, searching for his father and safety, chased relentlessly by the Boyd family and the men they hired to track and kill him.
In many ways, “The Hell Bent Kid” is a traditional, seemingly predictable Western — lone hero trying to outrun and outfight men who want nothing but the bounty for killing him. If you’ve read enough Westerns, you expect the lone hero, against all odds, by virtue of character and being right, to win out in the end and, in this case, find his dad as well.
The ending will surprise you, as will the way the story is told, which is almost exclusively through a first-person narrative from Tot Lohman. Lohman’s narrative is stark, but insightful, and the book also has statements and letters from some of the other characters, which help to round out the story and offer varying perspectives.
I think one of the reasons “The Hell Bent Kid” (some of the covers have it as “The Hell-Bent Kid,” with the hyphen, and I’m not 100 percent certain which is correct) is often seen on top Western book lists is because it is so different than many Westerns. Not just the ending, but the way the story is told. Outside of statements and letters from other characters, the book is almost completely told as a first-person narrative from Lohman’s point of view. It allows Locke to truly explore the character and what he thinks and feels as he faces so many life-threatening and character-challenging scenarios.
I am reminded of “True Grit,” Charles Portis’ classic book, and how different it was from most Westerns, though in Portis’ case, it was the language he used in the dialogue, rather than the lack of dialogue, that stood out.