When I first saw the movie Lone Hero starring Lou Diamond Phillips, I wasn’t impressed. It seemed trite — a retelling of High Noon with outlaw bikers set against the background of a wild west show. Yet the next morning, as the story slowly sank into the backwaters of my mind, one scene after another percolated to the surface, and I found myself smiling at the sly humor and wry nuances I was discovering. Lone Hero is now one of my favorite movies, one that gets richer with each viewing.
This retrospective appreciation has happened with a few other films, but I until recently I never read a book that became better with aging. Most go in one synapse and out the other before sinking into oblivion, but Steel Waters by Ken Coffman refuses to stay there.
Coffman’s wry humor and gritty descriptions immediately captivated me, but his hero didn’t. I have no use for characters (or people) who bring about their own miseries. Glen Wilson walked away from his wife and farm for no other reason than because he thought needed to. When he ended up in a Bolivian jail, I didn’t care. And neither did he. He seems to have a great capacity for accepting the status quo until suddenly he wants something else. (Usually without knowing what that something else is.)
Still, Glen Wilson was unique and compelling enough for me to keep reading. He is a mixture of opposites: hard-boiled and quixotic, opportunistic and idealistic, down-to-earth and impractical. And I enjoyed the book.
As Steel Waters percolates, however, I see much that I missed. Sure, Glen Wilson brings about his own predicament, but he is a victim of his own unresolved wants. They pull at him, buffeting him from one wild adventure to the other. The book has an episodic feel to it, but all mythic journeys do, and in the end, that is what Steel Waters is: mythic.
You are familiar with the mythic journey template. It’s the basic format of Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunt for Red October. An ordinary person answers the call to adventure. Meets mentors, allies, enemies. Passes tests. Undergoes the supreme ordeal, seizes the reward, and finally returns home — a hero in truth. Or not. Coffman doesn’t follow the format exactly. Glen Wilson may or may not be a hero. He may or may not be changed. This is the beauty of the mythic journey template — it is infinitely changeable without ever losing its power.
So now I have to go back and reread Steel Waters with this percolation in mind, see the layering of the nuances and the humor. I’ll let you know if it’s as good the second time around as it is in memory.
See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Glen Wilson, Hero of Five Ken Coffman Novels