Elmer Kelton, author of 20-some-odd Westerns, draws a bead here on a new topic, life in an oil-patch town in the 1920s boom years. Any way you slice it, though, Honor at Daybreak is still a Western, another entry in what might be called the yes-ma’am school of regional fiction. Kelton’s heroes are diffident country boys, long on politeness and short on learning or sophistication. They’d sooner be thrown down a dry well than take advantage of a good woman.
Caprock, Kelton’s fictionalized ”Sodom in the Sand Hills,” used to be a quiet cattle town where Saturday nights were punctuated by a few arrests for rowdiness. But now, with the discovery of black gold, Sheriff Dave Buckalew has his hands full dealing with robbery, extortion, and murder, just a few of the crimes committed by a gang of Prohibition-era mobsters. At the same time these criminals are spinning their dastardly plots, a lovable crew of roughnecks and dreamers is trying to strike liquid pay dirt.
Everybody in the novel is familiar from either Westerns or gangster movies. Blond women are fast and get punished; brunettes are spunky and stand by their men. The big gusher that climaxes the ”thunder-in-the-earth” motif common to all oil-field novels is brought in by as clichéd a gang as you could find south of George Bush’s coalition rhetoric; a drunken driller trying to reform, a cowboy, an Indian, a Mexican, and another one of those plucky little brunettes. The book’s last chapter is called ”Redemption,” and no wonder: There are enough rewards, moral and material, handed out at the end to satisfy Jesse Helms. Two marriages are in the works, one to a good-hearted waitress, the other to a good-hearted prostitute, and there is the promise of oil on every little shirttail ranch in the area. The only problem is, it’s still West, Texas — a ”calf-slobberss” kind of country, to use Kelton’s homey idiom — and it’s as bleak a bit of real estate as can be found this side of the Saudi desert. B-