Author Richard Wheeler Strikes It Rich In His Latest Tale Of The West.
By Emil Franzi
Second Lives: A Novel of the Gilded Age, by Richard S. Wheeler (St. Martin's Press). Cloth, $24.95.
I HAVE NEVER read any of Richard Wheeler's 20 or so other western novels. After Second Lives, I plan to. Wheeler won the 1997 Spur Award for western writing with the novel Sierra, and the consensus is that he's a master storyteller who creates wonderful characters. I concur.
Second Lives is set in 1880s Denver, that period in our history known as the Gilded Age, when large fortunes were made and lost quickly, particularly in the West. It weaves the stories of six principal characters around a common time frame and a shared problem--the return from adversity they all face. It inserts some real historical figures: Doc Holladay and Bat Masterson have brief roles, as well as the famous Horace Tabor and his wife, Baby Doe, the subject of many other tales including one of America's finest operas (the latter by Douglas Moore).
This is not your typical western. No gunfighters, no Indians, not even a cowboy. Nobody gets shot or even beat up in a bar fight. The subject is mining and the setting is mainly urban; Denver was a city in the 1880s. And three of the principal characters are women.
Wheeler invents interesting folks. Lorenzo Carthage, a.k.a. Lorenzo the Magnificent, is a mining genius who makes it and blows it all on monster parties and then makes it again. In describing Lorenzo's mining efforts, Wheeler clearly knows as much about 19th century mining practices as Terry C. Johnston, award-winning author of The Plainsmen, knows about frontier firearms.
Wheeler's other male characters, a wealthy young tuberculosis patient waiting to die until he's turned around by a similarly ill young woman who cures them both with dietary and herbal remedies; and a shabby-but-noble old attorney dying of several illnesses, are fascinating. But the three females provide the material that makes Second Lives transcend the normal period piece.
He gives us Cornelia Kimbrough, a wealthy young woman in a bad marriage, unable to secure a divorce under the prevailing legal theories of the time (marriage was in the interest of the state).
Dixie Ball loses a fortune on her first mining endeavor, ends up returning to her old job as a hotel maid, and works herself back to restaurant owner. Barmaid Rose Edenberry can never break away from her own weaknesses and misses several opportunities to change her life.
Opportunities--taken and missed--are what Second Lives is all about. For many, it represents a different kind of western novel, and sets aside many stereotypes about the genre. Wheeler proves you can tell a helluva story set in an authentic atmosphere without ever firing a shot.
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