Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Titus Gamble

A freed slave returns to his East Texas hometown as the town’s new lawman. Will the townsfolk be able to set aside their prejudices and allow the black constable to keep the peace? No, this is not a novelization of “Blazing Saddles” but rather the 1977 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original, “Titus Gamble” by Peter Gentry, a pseudonym of collaborators Frank Schaefer and Kerry Newcomb.

Titus Gamble began his freedom as a teenage runaway slave fleeing the Shannon Plantation in Brennanburg, Texas after a sexual encounter with the master’s comely daughter. Hungry and exhausted, Titus stumbles upon a Union encampment with a small regiment of black soldiers among them. Titus figures this is the best way to create distance between himself and his pursuers and joins the Union Army to fight the rebs.

The action then cuts four years later, and we meet the Brennan family, owners of the Shannon Plantation. The Civil War is over and the plantation’s black servants are no longer regarded as slaves. Drium is the Brennan patriarch, and his two sons - Rury and Dub - have returned from the war where they fought for the Confederacy. Dub got the worst of it and returned from the war with one fewer arm than when he enlisted. Finally, we meet Fianna, the red-haired Irish-American daughter who has taken on the role of matriarch since her mother’s death.

Early in the paperback, the reader is given clues that the Brennan family is a dysfunctional bunch. For starters, Fiona seems to get her kicks by traipsing around the mansion wearing next to nothing and staging nipple slips to drive her one-armed brother crazy with incestuous lust. Then there’s Rury whose idea of a good time is to ride over to Shreveport and murder freed slaves in their sleep.

The black laborers on the Shannon Plantation continue to work despite their freedom in exchange for food, clothing, housing, and small wages. This dependency arrangement barely sustains life for the newly-freed and serves to keep them in their place as sure a whip did when they were another man’s property. Other blacks survive by subsistence farming on plots of land forcibly taken from plantation owners by Union soldiers and provided to freed slaves to give them a fresh start as homesteaders. You can imagine that the plantation owners whose lands were seized in this arrangement aren’t thrilled with their new neighbors.

Due to a Civil War casualty, the town of Brennanburg is in need of a lawman to keep the peace. The military governor of the State of Texas names black (actually mulatto, but same difference to the local whites) war hero Titus for the position. The town residents aren’t enthusiastic about this appointment, and this is where the book shifts into the familiar territory of a Western novel. Titus strives to wrangle lawless poor blacks in the shantytown by the river while avoiding a lynching by the town’s conniving whites loyal to the wicked Shannon Plantation.

“Titus Gamble” is a plantation drama in addition to a Western novel, and it treads on well-established ground for the slavery gothic paperbacks. The shame and secrets that arise from forbidden interracial sex is the fuel that drives much of the interpersonal conflicts. There is also a good bit of violence and intrigue among the characters. It’s clear that the authors studied the ‘Blackoaks’ and ‘Falconhurst’ novels of Harry Whittington (writing as Ashley Carter), and they do a great job of re-creating that story structure. Like Whittington’s books, the writing here is superb and the plotting is compelling and easy to follow.

The plantation gothic paperbacks provide modern readers a prurient glimpse into the ghastly culture of American slavery in a manner that never glorifies or belittles the horror inflicted on the victims. “Titus Gamble” uniquely shines a light on the difficulties that southerners - white and black - had while adjusting to the new normal in the early days of reconstruction after the Civil War settled the issue of slavery’s legality.

This was a good novel but not a perfect one. The authors’ habit of writing the black dialogue phonetically (“He got hisse’f a followin’ a’ rowdies an’ de lahk, campin’ down by de riber...) made for a cumbersome read at times. The authors also tended to use a lot of tortured metaphors in the perfectly graphic sex scenes (“The delicate umber forest of her womanhood...His tumescent shaft...,” etc.).

Meanwhile, the action scenes are vivid and brutal - filled with gunplay, knife-fighting, and bare-knuckle brawling. The novel really succeeds as a Western about a new constable working to civilize a lawless town against great adversity.

“Titus Gamble” is an entertaining page-turner by a highly-talented writing pair. I was never bored, and I learned quite a bit about the era. This isn’t a masterwork of historical fiction, but you won’t regret the time you spend reading about the adventures of this unlikely hero. Recommended.

Postscript:

“Titus Gamble” is available to buy on the Amazon Kindle or borrow via the Kindle Unlimited program under the authors’ real names. You lose the vivid 1977 cover art, but you’ll avoid the awkward glances from people around you. Your call.