The Old West is deglamorized in a stark, convincing new novel; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 304 pp. $14.95.
Not entirely biographical, historical, or even a novel of genre, ''The Assassination of Jesse James . . .'' is in part all of these. To compare Ron Hansen with such writers of the ''new Western'' as Douglass C. Jones or A.B. Guthrie is to overlook the particular accomplishment of Hansen's writing.
Neither Guthrie, Jones, nor other regional novelists have ever depicted, for example, the slender margin separating farmers, lawmen, and shopkeepers from ill health and abject poverty. Yet their West was a harsh, primitive country where rumors of violence coexisted with the romance of dime novels.
Hansen's West incorporates both. His Jesse James, when ailing, eats raw grass , has raw eggs for breakfast, wipes his mouth with his shirt sleeve. His wife, Zee, whom he courted for nine years, gathers bowls of colorful leaves for his bedside. She washes his fingers, Hansen writes, as if they were silverware. Hansen's train robbers are cross-eyed, uneducated, and sullen men with missing fingers: When they rob a train, it is as cruel and shocking as a mugging on a city street. Although the passengers hid their money in clothing, under train seats, in their derby hats, many lost life savings, and, when 12 cents an hour was the working wage, these were tragic encounters.
After James's death, his mother, in Hansen's account, soon forgot the grief he had caused. And Zee, dressed in black, showed their home to tourists for 25 cents admission. Robert Ford, not yet 20, when he shot James, smoked cigarettes because he believed they made him seem tough and sophisticated. For years he could feel the sensation of the gun discharging in his hand. He did it, Hansen tells us, for a reward and a pardon.
The language of Hansen's novel is dense and textured, requiring careful reading. The pleasure of the book is in the eloquence of its dialogue and description, which are both literary and historically appropriate. The voices of Hansen's characters alternate between harshness and beauty, and sometimes the reader will want to pause to enjoy the sound of a line.
Hansen has broadened our perceptions of the West in much the same way as do the best historians, and his novel recalls the literature of Americana by John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, Willa Cather, and Hamlin Garland. His characters exist both as ordinary people in history and as the figures of legend, and he achieves this duality without loss of authenticity. Only Walter Hill's film ''The Long Riders'' has come as close to creating a portrait of this world.
In both in his first novel, ''Desperadoes,'' and this one, Ron Hansen has written seriously about the West, proving himself one of our finest stylists of American historical fiction.