Hard times in an Old West town


WELCOME TO HARD TIMES. By E.L. Doctorow. Vintage International. 212 pages. $10.

Over the last three decades, E.L. Doctorow has gained fame as the author of such novels as "Ragtime" and "Billy Bathgate." But "Welcome to Hard Times" was his first book, which came in 1960.

Because the story takes place in the Old West, it looks like a Western, acts like a Western and was even made into a Western movie. Yet it isn't really a Western. The setting merely provides a backdrop for Mr. Doctorow's story of cowardice and hate.

The cowardice comes quickly, right at the beginning of the book. A lone man, whom we are to know only as "the Bad Man from Bodie," rides into a small Dakota town and proceeds to wreak havoc. He rapes and kills a prostitute, then kills a few other townsfolk for good measure. In a final parting gesture, he burns down most of the town.

All this occurs literally overnight. The Bad Man even finds time to grab some shuteye during the mayhem. Every effort of the townspeople to stop him is mistimed, thwarted or fumbling. Some are killed for their effort; most occupy themselves with fleeing first the terror and then what is left of the town.

Blue, the town's unofficial mayor and the book's narrator, makes an ineffectual attempt to do something about the Bad Man but then goes back to observing. He is one of only four people who remain in the town's gutted ruins after the Bad Man finally rides off.

The other three are the prostitute Molly, who has been burned badly in the fire, the 12-year-old son of one of the murdered townsfolk and an old Indian who nurses Molly back to health.

The three white survivors eventually become a family of sorts. Meanwhile, due to a nearby mine that makes the site attractive, a new town, called Hard Times, grows up on the ashes of the old.

Yet Blue never realizes he is a coward for not having tried harder to stop the terror. Molly, however, does realize it, and she hates Blue for it. She also lives with the fear that the Bad Man will return. Not trusting the men around her, she slowly tries to turn the boy Jimmy into her agent of defense and revenge.

Because this is a novel, Molly's fears are realized. The Bad Man comes back a few years later, just as the new town's death knell is being sounded by the mine's sudden closing.

Can anyone stop him this time? Will anyone try?

To find out, you could see the 1967 movie version, with Henry Fonda. But it isn't available on videotape. The movie would only give you half the picture anyway. One of the pleasures of a good book is the artfulness of the storytelling. That's something movies or TV can't duplicate.

Mr. Doctorow's books roll like a stream. One steps in on the first page and immediately is caught up in an easy, flowing current that carries one so effortlessly you don't realize how far you've come.

"Welcome to Hard Times" shows that from the first, Mr. Doctorow had the knack.

Myron Beckenstein is The Sun's assistant foreign editor.

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