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R.G. Vliet: Soledad (aka Solitudes)

I think that Cormac McCarthy is a very fine writer and two or three of his novels are up there with the best of 20th century literature. However, this book comes very close, very very close, in terms of quality and yet is little known and only available through a small university press – Texas Christian University Press, hidden away with the Compleat Buffalo Book and other Texas books (though a quick review of their catalogue reveals some interesting works). Vliet had a lot of trouble with this book. He worked very hard at it, with financial difficulties pressing. His editor passed him on to Tony Godwin, the legendary English publisher, who had him write and rewrite the book several times. By the time he had finished, Godwin had died. The book went through several editors who all made their own changes, including changing the title from Soledad (because of the Soledad prison episode) to Solitudes. After it was published, Vliet was not happy with it and, after publishing Scorpio Rising and while undergoing chemotherapy for the cancer that would eventually kill him, he set about revising it and it is this book – finally published as Soledad (if you are reading Solitudes, you are reading the old version) that is a great work.

Four men are herding cattle, including Claiborne Sanderlin (aka Claiborne Arnett), known as Red or Clabe, when a old Mexican rides up. Clabe, a bad-tempered, solitary man, loses his cool and kills the old man. As they are leaving, Clabe notices a couple of photos the old man was showing them, one of them of a very attractive woman. He becomes obsessed by the photo and sets out to find her (the back of the photo says where it was taken). Most of the first part of the novel is Clabe’s drifting around, looking for the woman in the photo and Vliet is such a skilful and poetic writer that he keeps us very much involved. Of course, he eventually finds her – she is, naturally, called Soledad and is the granddaughter of the man Clabe killed.

The second part of the novel is told from Soledad’s point of view and how she runs the ranch after her grandfather’s death. Claiborne comes to work for her but she is uneasy about him and suspects that he is somehow connected to her grandfather, not least because she finds that he has the photo of her. Her uneasiness gradually builds up (and, again Vliet does a superb job) till she eventually finds out that Clabe did, in fact, kill her grandfather. There is an inevitable (but not predictable) climax and Clabe manages to survive to carry on drifting. Clabe and Soledad both are worthy additions to Western literature and it is only regrettable that this book has not had the success it deserves.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich