The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
It is unjust that such a moving and powerful book should be so neglected in these days after having its virtues praised and known during its own time, but there are at least a couple of reasons why this most excellent book is obscure these days. The first reason is that the book is a Western, which is unfashionable these days for many readers and even more so for those literary critics who enforce standards of good literature and decide what is and is not a classic. The second reason is that this book tells us truths that many people do not wish to hear, for those who are willing to read Westerns do not appear willing to stare into the darkness of their own hearts, but are looking to indulge their nostalgic longings.
It ought to be clearly understood that the author has no interest in indulging nostalgic longings for a noble past in the West. This novel, according to its author, was a technical exercise that was intentionally designed to take the genuine elements of historical truth present in the Western novel and to examine timeless questions of injustice and human frailty (especially the questions of manhood and courage) that challenge the self-deceptions of a Western culture that at the time this book was written was indecisively wondering whether to oppose the scourge of fascism in Germany and Japan, among other places. As the themes discussed in this book are timeless, and especially of interest to those who share the author’s concerns about both anarchy and tyranny, this book remains salutary as our own times are not so different from the tumultuous decade of the 1930’s.
It is ironic that the last novel I reviewed  as a novel almost exclusively about women, and this novel is almost exclusively about men, and the contrast is worthwhile. One of the two women here is a brassy, bossy sort of woman, and the other is such an attractive young woman that jealous wives drive her away out of spite, until she returns with a smug, superior husband from San Francisco. This novel is lacking in romance of any kind, and those looking for it will be sorely disappointed. What this novel does is examine the process by which men so often fail to have courage in their convictions, or act in a just manner, by showing the danger of the mob mentality and the repercussions of our pack mindset.
This novel is constructed as a five-act tragedy. The first act is a fairly standard Western setup, as a couple of cowboys come into town, drink too much, gamble a bit too successfully, and get into a fight. After this, though, the novel breaks from conventionality and becomes a much darker work. In the second act a rumor is spread that cattle have been rustled and that one of the respected ranchers in the area has been killed in cold blood. Immediately a posse is summoned to chase after the rustlers, but lacking any leaders it dithers and there is an inconclusive debate about whether it is right to lynch criminals or whether one should rely on the slow legal process. Once a sufficiently decisive ringleader comes in, a hotheaded and prickly ex-Confederate named Tetley (a man who ruthlessly bullies his son, whom he thinks to be too effeminate), the mob stumbles off in search of the supposed murderers.
The third act shows the chase, as it were, where the narrator of the story is shot in the shoulder by the party of the beautiful young lady returning to town after having gotten married, until they reach the Ox-Bow in a freezing Montana mountain pass. In the fourth act three men, a naive but innocent young man, a Mexican drifter, and a soldier with PTSD, are cornered, accused of cattle rustling and murder, and are lynched. The fifth act demonstrates that the men were all innocent, as they had claimed, and leads to more senseless deaths by suicide, as well as finger-pointing and recriminations by the rest of the mob of moral cowards.
Though the book has a weakness in not presenting a balanced society, this weakness is a result of having chosen the specific social context (a society without a great deal of women to begin with). What the author does is present ourselves as moral cowards like that of the narrator, aware that they are being led into evil but not morally strong enough to stand against it. Whether we are talking about 1930’s Germany or 1880’s Montana, the situation is the same even today. Even today we are attracted to the speed of vigilante justice and insufficiently aware of its evils–its threat to the legal and moral order, the taking of the forbidden fruit of being the judge of men’s lives before we have gotten the facts, the poisonous nature of rumor and our willingness to think the worst of others while excusing ourselves of even greater sins.
Among the many strengths of this novel are the superb and tense plotting, the skillful choice of a narrator who strikes both the sympathies and the disgust of the reader (and the realization that we are more like him than we would like to admit), and the immense attention to detail the author manages to combine into a short work of 200 pages. This is not a novel for someone looking for escapist literature, but if someone wants to ponder the question of what it means like to be a real man in evil times, and how to avoid being caught up in lynch mobs, a lesson that is useful in all places and times, this novel provides a thought-provoking tale of a murderous mob not unlike those mobs we see all around us protesting against the evils of this wicked age and taking what they think to be justice into their own unworthy hands. That is a lesson we all could stand to learn.