Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Paul S. Powers, a review by Mike Ward

Mike Ward posted this review of pulp writer Paul S. Powers's hardback Western novel on the Fictionmags e-mail list and I asked for his permission to reprint it (it's not actually a reprint, since this is not a print media...). He said "yes", so here it is. It's pretty long. Here's a site dedicated to Paul S. Powers, who hasn't been very known even in the pulp fandom. Thanks to his daughter, his biography is easily available. Some of his old Westerns seem to be in print, though.

Review of "Doc Dillahay" by Paul S. Powers
Original hardcover publication: MacMillan, 1949

John Dillahay, Arizona rancher's son, teaches school, becomes a doctor, and marries the love of his life. Along the way we find he's a crack shot, a tough brawler when he needs to be, a smart medical man, and a faithful supporter of his friends.

I won this book as a prize in the most recent PGDF text-analysis contest, and I was going to write a basic review of it. But I discovered I don't need to, as someone has already written it for us:


The Amazon reviewer has read Powers' autobiography, and his comments about the book are informed by knowledge of the background story of the writer and his work.

While I was searching the web for further background on the author and the story, I was startled to discover Powers was a rare-book collector (what kinds of books? what happened to his collection when he died?!?!), and that he ended his days working in a bookstore in Berkeley CA -- where I almost certainly bought books from him.


A small number of his short stories are currently indexed in the FMI:


All that said, I'll now do a meta-review of the book:

1. A novel, or a patchwork of short stories?

When a short-story writer does a novel, he needs to be careful that he isn't writing a bunch of shorts about a common character. This is exactly what short-story writer Powers did here.

We meet young John Dillahay, and he begins to grow wise. His odyssey from youth to medical school to adulthood is explicitly divided into "Book 1" and "Book 2," with most of medical school happening during the blank pages between the two sections. Many little things happen that shape succeeding events. Conflicts provide opportunities for growth. "Doc Dillahay" would segment easily into a TV miniseries; there may even be enough episodes for a thirteen-week season.

On the other hand, I hereby state that it's a novel. "Huckleberry Finn" and "Moby Dick," are just collections of episodes around central characters, and these are the stuff of Great American Novels. You have to be careful about this.

John Dillahay grows up; he chooses a career. He finds a mentor in Doc Ledinger, and their relationship is central to the rest of the book. Here I mention that the mentor is a crusty old geezer, a medical practitioner with a mysterious past, who is fully competent except when he is on one of his six-day drinking binges. By John's example, as a man who can survive bad luck without escaping into the bottle, his mentor is redeemed and becomes a grown-up again. Ledinger becomes an alternate
father-figure, who teaches him all he knows and then makes it possible for him to continue learning at a distant academy (where he will soon know more than his guru).

John goes off to medical school, and returns to take his place as an adult. He survives conflicts, both small and large. By the end of the book he has resolved the power struggles that he is party to: some by acceptance, some by negotiation, some by triumph, and even a couple by losing.

He loses the love of his life (so far) to his own brother.

John's birth father becomes sick, while John is far away at medical school. John is unaware of this, and therefore unable to help him' he is thus implicitly guilty for whatever happens to his father. Back in Arizona, a degreed doctor, still he is unable to keep his father from dying, of a disease far beyond the powers of currently modern medicine to cure; he curses his and medicine's ignorance for their failures.

He comes to a better understanding and acceptance of his place in the universe. He, along with most of the other surviving characters, achieves a happy ending. His adopted father-figure marries John's mother, thus becoming his father in fact. Calling Dr. Freud.

Our boy John discovers the true love of his life has always been near him since the earliest chapters. We all just need to look around us.

2. What's the book about?

Personal growth.

Medicine, specifically medical practice in the American western frontier, its strengths and its limitations. There's enough of this to make it kind of a novel about science. Powers used his childhood memories, of his father's medical practice, to make it all seem real in 1885 Arizona.

Family: support for the members of; betrayal and forgiveness; extension of familial group by adopting or marrying (as when his brother marries the niece of his father's business enemy); tradition; foreswearing of tradition.

The American West: It's not all (or even mostly) about gunfights at the corral. Mostly, the West was about families.

Alcoholism and the effects of alcohol on the western frontier. Alcohol as an internal escape, mirroring the external escape from the civilized parts of America. Alcohol as the destroyer of lives: John's dependence on his mentor provides the justification for his mentor's successful battle against binging and benders. The author is said, in the autobiography, to have had personal experience with alcohol.

Surpassing your father's estate (another call for Dr. Freud): John becomes a successful doctor, while his father fails as a rancher, just as he had failed before moving to Arizona. Was Powers working out personal family issues here?

Although his father is successful in organizing the small ranchers against the rich man's combine, he's forced to abandon ranching and take up storekeeping-a lower status occupation. There's an echo here of his parent's move to Arizona after earlier problems in another state; and this in turn echoes the long-ago move of the de la Haye family to Ireland -which led to an earlier reduction of the family's status. Family, again: maybe his father isn't anything much, but by heaven the
de la Haye family was pretty hot stuff back in Norman England.

3. Why did the author write the book?

Money, career, personal growth.

To work out personal family and career issues. Why am I here? Why is my market for short pulp fiction going away? What am I going to do about it? Why wasn't my Dad like Ludwig Ledinger? Or maybe he was, in the wrong ways.

4. Yucca City == Tombstone? Not exactly.


5. Doc Dillahay == Doc Holliday?

Nope. Dillihay may be Holliday spelled sideways, but I think Powers chose the name simply for its evocation of Arizona history. Holliday was a dentist, and more or less contemporaneous with Doc Ledinger, our protagonist's guide, role model, and mentor. Our boy John was just learning the ropes.

6. Mainstream work from a pulp writer?

Apparently so. Well, mainstream, if you consider a western a mainstream book.

Our author included a couple of jokes at the reader's expense, or maybe they were simply old WILD WEST WEEKLY tropes he couldn't shake. Hero John can beat up one of his larger and more noxious students, throwing him, deservedly, into the cesspit. He can shoot three cans tossed into the air with his pistol, Bam Bam Bam, just like that. He is, in fact, the best shot around; and him just a young feller; he outshot the cartridge salesman, we're told. In fact, his friends suggest a career as
a trick-shot marksman would pay better than doctoring.

During the big gunfight at the end of the book, John takes a brand-new rifle from the store (with the price tag still on it, so he knows it's in good condition!) and carefully wings all the bad guys attacking the Marshall and company holed up in the newspaper office. Dillahay reluctantly kills the syphilis-maddened Cullen La Mar, and his mentor Doc Ledinger reappears on the scene: not dashed to bits at the bottom of the mining pit, as everyone had feared, but safe and sound, having hidden in the outhouse during the battle.

7. Did you like the book? If so, tell why. Should I read it?

Yeah, it was worth the time spent. The sections about medical practice in 1885 are almost science-fictional; certainly they're fiction about science and technology. The American West background is interesting and well-drawn. The main characters generate some empathy in the reader; they are self-consistent and show human traits. Few of the things they do make the reader cringe for their stupidity. (Sometimes we cringe for John's obliviousness to things going on around him, but in these cases
it's an author's device to foreshadow later events.) You could read it and enjoy it.

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