The Stars in Their Courses is the book the film El Dorado is based on. My dad had mentioned wanting to read it at some point, but damn, the only copies you'd see available were really expensive. Finally I found one that wasn't, and here we are. He'll get the book eventually, but I figured I could read it first.
This will shock you I'm sure, but the movie bears little resemblance to the book. Actually, the piece of fiction the book reminds me of the most, is Stephen King's Needful Things. A man comes to a normally sleepy town, where everyone seems to get along, and before you know, everyone's worst qualities have come boiling out and people are dying.
That's overstating a bit. Arch Eastmere is no stranger to the area. The town is named after his family, after all. But Arch has been away in Mexico for 2 years, trying to make his fortune - he didn't - and has come back home to rest, and perhaps decide his next move. But Arch's presence seems to spur on the worst in people somehow. He has an earned reputation as a man who can handle trouble, and this seems to encourage people to do things they'd normally never consider.
Mark Lacy, the man who loaned Arch the money for his venture to Mexico, has been having bad luck ever since. He's drinking more, and blaming all his problems on others, especially the prosperous Randal family. When he notices the level of the Forkhandle River has gone well down, he jumps to the entirely insane conclusion the Randals (through whose property the River originates and runs) have dammed up the river in an attempt to ruin all the other ranchers and landowners nearby, including Mark Lacy. They'll be forced to sell their land to the Randals for pennies on the dollar. Also, they're going to somehow steal his wife and marry her off to their middle son, Pax. And through a series of unfortunate events - mostly of Mark's own drunken stupidity - he manages to convince the majority of the town of all this, and it's a freaking range war the next thing you know.
So it's an odd book, one I'm not sure what to make of. There's a lot of history, bad blood and bad decisions alluded to in varying degrees. The Civil War was 15 years ago, but many of these men fought in, all but two for the Confederacy, and there's a strong sense that a lot of this is ill will over that bubbling up, beyond basic envy of someone who has more. I do feel like there's an implication this urge to violence is inside all people, just waiting for an opportunity to be set loose. It's simply a matter of when each person decides the opportunity exists. Arch likes to think of himself as someone trouble just seems to find, and then he handles it as best he can, but he doesn't seem like he makes much of an effort to avoid it. After all, his skill at handling trouble is a potential avenue to make money, and Arch was sure he could manage it, so what's the harm?
There's a dreamlike quality to all of it, or that slow-motion car wreck effect, where every single thing that can happen to make things worse, keeps happening. People get aggressive at the wrong time, people lose their nerve at the wrong time, people get drunk at the wrong time, people decide to do what looks like the right thing at the wrong time. I don't know what it's all supposed to mean. That in the same way you can flip a coin and have it come up heads 20 times in a row, sometimes every decision will be the wrong one? When people start focusing on petty vendettas and opportunism, they lose the ability to think rationally? After it's all said and done, the survivors seem pretty sheepish in a, "yeah, that was stupid thing to do" way, so temporary insanity maybe.
I have to mention Cora Randal. She's the only daughter, and through most of the book she's presented as sort of an odd duck, like she's seeing things nobody else does, but either she can't articulate them to anyone else, or no one is interested in listening. Mostly the latter since nobody responds well when she does try to tell them. Of course, part of that is she's telling them to cast a woman who gets beaten by her husband out of the house where she's come for refuge. Which is not the sort of suggestion that's going to win you many plaudits, yet was probably the right idea in the long run. So Cora's either really concerned about her family, to the utter exclusion of all other people, or she perceived the complete disaster that was looming and tried to cut it off by the most expedient route. Of course, if that Bible-thumper hadn't seen the woman in question leave her home and head towards the Randals, there might have been no trouble at all. Bad timing.
Anyway, near the end, Cora reveals, rather abruptly, that she was raped by her own brother over a decade ago, which has altered her views on men irrevocably, and led her to not trust her family to ever listen. That was a strange turn, and I'm not sure it felt earned. Neither Cora nor that particular brother had really gotten enough character development for it to feel like it had the proper weight. Instead of being a bombshell, it was a fat bag of sand dropped with a flat thud. It left me bewildered why Brown felt it necessary to add that. I didn't feel like it explained Cora's behavior, and I'm not sure how much I thought it jibed with the brother's behavior. I can sort of see the path to his current actions, but it still doesn't feel like something Cora's character needed. She needed more pages dissecting her actual thoughts and reasoning.