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Start Over – A Man Always Has To

. . . It doesn’t amount to much when the rain gauges stay empty.
Bidgee, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
. . . It doesn’t amount to much when the rain gauges stay empty.

After reading the first thirty pages of Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained, I thought I had this book and its subsequent beats pegged. Kelton’s protagonist, Charlie Flagg, would, if you’ll forgive the pun, weather a massive drought, refusing government assistance, all while his neighbors greedily lapped up handouts in lieu of hard work. I expected a parable extolling American individualism, where seeds, both literal and metaphorical, sown by government assistance would turn poisonous upon their reaping. Charlie Flagg would suffer short-term losses only to have the last laugh as his neighbors succumbed to some sort of agricultural Orwellian nightmare. Some of the plot points Kelton hits during this hefty novel matched those expectations, but Kelton offers us a much more nuanced study in place than I might have expected from a story filtered through such an unabashedly uncomplicated character as Charlie Flagg.

The true power of Kelton’s book comes in his personification of drought in all aspects of life in West Texas. Conversations amongst the men read as dry and barren of emotion or ornament, just as the land. The men are harsh, unforgiving to outsiders, utilitarian in their pragmatism. In Kelton’s novel, he offers us chapters framed through different characters’ perspectives, and Kelton uses free-indirect discourse freely. But really, it’s only Charlie that we see fully realized, as it’s only Charlie who truly understands the complexities, textures, and brutality of drought. In Charlie, Kelton provides us with a character flawed enough to avoid becoming a hollow archetype of righteous libertarianism, an agrarian John Galt. Charlie is an obsessive, indulgent meditation on those areas of life on the plains that are controllable, and those elements that remain indifferent to human suffering. The easy way out of this narrative would be for Charlie to wait out the drought and be repaid for his dogged persistence. Kelton, like Charlie, does not seem to be one for taking the easy road, and Charlie’s hubris in the face of the rain gods of the Great Plains reads like a Greek tragedy.

It’s not just the classically tragic emplotment of Charlie Flagg that makes for a difficult, uncomfortable read at times, though. At certain points, it’s difficult to parse where Charlie’s prejudice against Mexican migrant laborers and the other Mexican townspeople ends, and where a more authorial perspective might begin. Similarly, women seem only to exist in limited roles–the old nag, the jilted lover, the seductress outsider, or in the poorest conceived and executed plotline in the book, the victim. This last element, the Anita Flores and Danny Ortiz storyline, was almost a dealbreaker for me, saved only by Kelton rightfully labeling Charlie's response as “paternalistic.”


This book in many ways invoked some of my more complex feelings about my own, similarly droughted homelands. The West Texas of Kelton’s creation is harsh in its aesthetic and literary choices, harsh in its treatment of those who ended up there by ill fate, and harsh for those who stay out of sheer obstinance. Kelton offers us a fully realized landscape with characters that have little time to realize anything outside of their laboring conditions and arid circumstances. At the conclusion, as Charlie surveys the wreckage left by ecological and philosophical forces that leave him with little livestock, few remaining human connections, and no more drought on which to place the perceived sins of modernity, Charlie claims “There’s still the land.” In this Kelton remains true to his vision–the land endures fully realized, haunting, immutable...hostile to all who would claim to master it with a mere two centuries of human knowledge. Charlie endeavors to “start again,” because as he says, “a man always has to.” Seemingly, Charlie hasn’t learned that the land yields to no man, and “has to” on the Plains doesn’t amount to much when the rain gauges stay empty.

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