HIS FORTE'S WRITIN, HISTORICAL ACCURACY AND PITHY, OLD WEST DIALOGUE EARN PHOENIX NOVELIST JOHN LEGG A CULT FOLLOWING
He rode out of the west on a muggy evening in June, the sun starting to sink like a shot of bad whiskey on the horizon. Unarmed and hatless, he strode through the door of the Apacheland Book Company, boldly ignoring the "Closed" sign posted in the window.
No one made a move to stop him. Everyone knew who he was, this self-described short, fat, balding guy with jeans and a tee shirt reading "Arizona: The West at Its Best." He was the Man With a Name. And his name was John Legg.
One of the newest big names on the Western-genre book charts had come to town.
Legg is Wanted in Apache Junction. Like many of the protagonists in his 36 published paperback books, he is an unlikely Western hero, short of stature but big of celebrity--at least among folks who come to Apacheland new and used bookstore, where there is a waiting list of customers who get first shot at Legg's books when they hit the shelves.
"Once they read the books, they come back looking for more," store manager Wendy Farko says. "If they come back saying, 'Eh, I don't think so--let me try something else,' that's one thing. But when they come back saying, 'What else do you got by this guy?' that really says something."
War at Bent's Fort is Legg's latest novel, promoted as the first of the "Forts of Freedom" series. The second installment, Treaty of Fort Laramie, is scheduled to hit town next month. St. Martin's Press of New York, the company publishing the series, says War at Bent's Fort is "doing very well."
Locally, places like Apacheland and even Scribner's in Scottsdale say Legg's books trail in his category just behind those of the genre's legends, names with whom Legg's fans sometimes compare him for his realism and historical accuracy.
"I've read Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey and John Jakes," says Al Medesha, a retiree who headed west 27 years ago from Pennsylvania, "and Grey is a great historian, but somehow his characters seem remote. With Legg, you feel like you know the people."
A publicity sheet for War at Bent's Fort excerpts a review published in Roundup, the bimonthly magazine of the Western Writers of America, which calls the book a blend of fact and fiction that results in "a credible tale of life at Bent's Fort" on the Arkansas River. The reviewer admitted being impressed enough to overlook Legg's one major alteration of history--an imaginary assault on Taos, New Mexico, in retaliation for the murder of William Bent's brother.
"No forgiveness is necessary for the portrait of William Bent and other historical figures, and I award him three gold stars for his use of natural and authentic-sounding dialogue. In exchange for his not making his Indian characters sound like Tonto, I would forgive John Legg if he had located Bent's Fort on the headwaters of the Mississippi."
Legg, 45, has been a copy editor for 13 years at the Phoenix Gazette, where he threw down stakes out of graduate school at Northwestern University. "When I was casting about for a job, I was looking toward the West," he says wryly, admitting a lifelong hankering for the Old West, particularly the age of the mountain man--about 1820 to 1840, or actually 1822 to 1840, maybe a little earlier, maybe a little later."
He is trying to be historically accurate, you see, and the inside of his latest book notes that he is a member of the Opposition, an organization that promotes historical accuracy in writing. His written dialogue is saddled with talkin' and hollerin' in all sorts of phonetically correct and character-indicative language, with lots of knife-pullin' and gun-blazin':
The three companions reloaded their pistols after checking to make sure all the soldiers were dead, and then retrieved their rifles.
Bent stuck his head out one of the windows facing the courtyard, straight across from which sat the jail. It was quiet now, with everyone waiting for something to happen, for someone to show himself.
"Shit," Bent muttered.
"What's wrong, Cap'n?" Walsh asked.
"I expect we're gonna have to ferret each and every one of those sons of bitches out of the houses." He spit on the dirt floor. "And I don't expect we can do so without getting cut to pieces ourselves."
"We're in a fix for sure, Cap'n," Walsh commented. He did not seem concerned. He figured that Bent would get them out of this somehow; he always had before.
Legg was weaned on the John Wayne Western flick, but "once I started reading Western nonfiction, I realized how inaccurate they were." He even points out a supposed inaccuracy in the biographical information printed inside the new book's cover saying his books have sold in the millions. "That's hype on the part of the publisher," he says, saying the figure is closer to a half-million.
In other words, he's not doing well enough to quit his job at the Gazette quite yet, and he says he'd be reluctant to, anyway, given the fickle nature of the business. But things have picked up since he was struggling to get something, anything, published in the late 1970s. He's been known to complete a manuscript in a month. Two novels came out last month and three this month, with War at Bent's Fort the most recent.
The Pennsylvania retiree, Al Medesha, had already read five of Legg's novels over the past two years, and he recommended to the newly formed reading group at Apacheland Books that War at Bent's Fort be the first book for discussion.
"I'm not a big fan of Western writers," Medesha says, "because so many of them, you read their stuff and it's typical cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians stuff. With John Legg, many a time I've looked up at the clock and, God almighty, it's four o'clock in the morning. You've gotta do a damn good job to catch my attention like that."
So on this warm June evening at the bookstore, Medesha and seven others, all women, gather in a tight circle of folding chairs, a collection of aspiring writers and history buffs in shorts and tee shirts, one of which proclaims: "So Many Books, So Little Time." They sit just in front of the romances, new books and audiotape books, a table set up with punch and cookies and chips nearby.
One woman gives a spirited reading of a portion of the book, while Legg stands against the counter, a presence in their midst, a little embarrassed by the attention. But they want to know: How long did this book take to write? How many forts really didn't sell booze to the Indians? How did you decide on such a nontraditional hero?
They talk about the difficulty of getting Westerns past East Coast editors who don't know what a hackamore is and ponder the paucity of women characters in the genre. They trade nightmares about publishers, with whom Legg has had experiences good, bad and ugly.
"This is so good," says one woman, holding up Legg's novel, "it should be a text in schools. I mean, Louis L'Amour is good, but he just doesn't measure up to John Legg."
Legg laughs a little. "I'm not much of an egoist," he says later. "I know my stuff is good, maybe very good, but to say that is to sound like I'm bragging. It's nice hearing all those things, but it makes me a little uneasy. The book might be worth it, but I'm not."
What he does is not exactly ars poetica, but in terms of writing, it does seem a step above John Grisham, who makes far more money. Legg says he just works hard to give people a good story. "I don't expect to be the next Louis L'Amour or John Jakes," he says. "I'd just like to get to those levels where people would know me and respect me."
And after signing the last autograph and downing his last shot of punch, the man who looks quite unlike the burly mountain man most readers expect vanishes out the door and off into the sunset toward his Phoenix home. He rides not a horse, but an Isuzu Trooper.
He reflects on this failure to meet yet another stereotype.
"I wouldn't mind having a Mustang, though," he says.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.