Glendon Swarthout’s 1975 novel, “The Shootist,” is a terrific book that takes place in El Paso, Texas, at the turn of the 20th century. John Bernard (J.B.) Books is the last surviving of the best-known 19th century gunfighters. He travels to El Paso where his worst fears are confirmed by a town doctor. He has pancreatic cancer and only a few painful, debilitating weeks left before he dies an excruciating death.
Books is befriended by the women who runs the boarding house he is staying in, against her initial wishes and his. He tries to help her with her teenage son, who, like many that age, idolizes shootists and hopes to be one.
Books quickly decides that the time, location and method of his death are the last things he can control, so he chooses to do so. He spends a few weeks getting what little of his affairs are left in order and, reflecting back, wrestles with the life he has chosen. With his last waning strength, he sets out to control his destiny.
Swarthout is brilliant in painting an unvarnished picture of a man who lived to kill, and yet, he allows us to come to care about the character.
Swarthout was a prolific writer and wrote in a variety of genres. Many of his better-known books were turned into movies, including: “7th Cavalry” (based on the short story “A Horse for Mrs. Custer”), “They Came to Cordura,” “Where the Boys Are,” “The Homesman,” and of course, “The Shootist.”
Swarthout was awarded the Western Writers of America’s Owen Wister Award (named for the author of “The Virginian”) for Lifetime Achievement, the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for Best Western Novel of the Year (1976) for “The Shootist” and a Western Heritage Wrangler Award for Best Western Novel (1988) for “The Homesman.” And, in 2008, he was inducted into the Western Writers Hall of Fame.
Former President Ronald Reagan called “The Shootist” a “treasured addition” to his library. As a young man, I had an opportunity to meet the president, and I even drove in his presidential motorcade a couple of times. Regardless of your political views, President Reagan had character, and his public persona certainly embodied much of the Old West spirit. Pictures of the president chopping wood or riding horses on his beloved California ranch, Rancho del Cielo, were frequently distributed during his presidency.
I have often wondered, as the president suffered through a decade of Alzheimer’s disease, if thoughts of “The Shootist” ever came to him in his moments of clarity. I don’t pretend to know Ronald Reagan better than anyone else who knew him only from his public side, but I imagine he would have preferred to go out more on his own terms, with full mental acuity and the dignity with which he had conducted his life.
The movie, “The Shootist,” was released only a year after the book and starred John Wayne, in one of his better roles and also his last. With exquisite and painful irony, Wayne was suffering from stomach cancer during the filming, cancer which would kill him in 1979. The movie also starred Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard and James Stewart.