Living in a World Without The Bad and The Ugly

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For Rob Geisen, In Memory of Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach

Read at the August F-Bomb–Join us the second Wednesday of the month at The Mercury Café, 2199 Calfornia Street, Denver, CO.

We now live in a world where only The Good survives, and that is a very bad thing. I refer, of course, to the greatest spaghetti western of all time, The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, Sergio Leone’s 1966 masterpiece. Clint Eastwood embodies Good in his iconic Man With No Name character, a serape-wearing, cigar-chomping, quick-drawing badass. Lee Van Cleef portrays The Bad, with his steely blue eyes and the most handsomely villainous moustache in film history. Eli Wallach plays The Ugly, a frantic little man who is quick with his pistols and is not above monologuing with a chicken until his crew appears from the shadows.

Unfortunately, the cast of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly has largely abandoned the mortal coil. Lee Van Cleef went to the great saloon in the sky way back in 1989, so we’ve been living without The Bad for some time. And that’s okay, I guess, because there’s enough Bad in the world to help us along. Lee Van Cleef’s work was done. Granted, nobody can do a baddie quite like him—as the great thrash-funk band Primus tells us, “no one’s steely like Lee Van Cleef”—but we’ve got enough Gary Oldmans and Christopher Walkens and Clancy Browns to fill the gaps. Then, this year, Eli Wallach passed away, taking The Ugly with him. Again, this is understandable—he was 98, and there is no shortage of Ugly in the world, what with Kardashian sisters sprouting like spores and Vladimir Putin on the warpath and the Ted Cruz/Sarah Palin/Michelle Bachman-inspired policies of the Tea Party. But the real tragedy is that, without The Bad and The Ugly to help define The Good, The Good has now completely lost its way.

One would think that, in a world with only The Good left, it would be the best of all possible worlds, but unfortunately that’s just not true. In a world without The Bad and The Ugly, The Good has no more great foil. Clint Eastwood has done pretty well—The Unforgiven is perhaps the last truly great western. But ultimately, most of what Clint Eastwood has done in recent years has been much more in the vein of Paint Your Wagons—campy, strained, and more than a little disappointing. The fact that he can still be a badass makes it even more heartbreaking when he wanders into a dusty saloon, moseys up to the bar, and starts berating the president of the United States where everyone else sees an empty stool. No one wants to make eye contact with him any more, not because they’re afraid he’ll gun them down with his dead-eyed aim, but because they’re ashamed for him. Sure, the badass is still hidden beneath the sad old man, but the sad old man is running the show because there are no longer any antagonists worthy of his demonstrations of badassery.

Every writer worth his or her salt knows that your hero can never be truly Good without the Bad there to challenge him, or the Ugly truth to complicate matters. So the Good goes sour, and makes us all forget what made it so good in the first place. Good without Bad or Ugly will always lead to Greedo shooting first, even though everyone in the goddamn galaxy knows Han Solo did the right thing. In a world without Bad or Ugly, Clint Eastwood leaves loveable scoundrel Eli Wallach to hang in some god-forsaken shithole town because he had already pocketed the reward money and turned a record profit for the fiscal year. In the 21st Century world without Bad or Ugly, Good promotes selfishness as virtue and thinks of Rick Perry as a viable presidential candidate, and Clint Eastwood directs yet another romance film that will probably win an Oscar over some other, far more deserving director. We deserve a world filled with more than just The Good, but to borrow an Eastwood line from The Unforgiven, “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

“Doppelganger” in Connotation Press

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My short story “Doppelganger,” from The Boy in the Well, appears in the latest edition of Connotation Press. Please check it out, and while you’re there, check out some of the other awesome stories in this issue!

Special thanks to Meg Tuite for agreeing to re-publish one of my favorite stories. You should check out her books Her Skin is a Costume and Bound by Blue.