Review: Jesse James and the Secret Legend of Captain Coytus by Alex J. Mueck

Jesse James and the Secret Legend of Captain Coytus is the latest offering by Alex J. Mueck, an author who has shifted from more serious crime work to achieving more interesting edges in previous book Myth Man and to a much further extent in this new and bizarre title, which explores the story of Jesse James and the “truth” of his story, as ascribed by a delinquent student’s graduate thesis determined to expose this “secret legend” for fame, fortune and girls.

The story is set up in an interesting way that takes a little getting into, jumping from the present day and the suffering of teacher Professor Gladstone as he discusses the paper with his student, one Ulysses Hercules Baxter as he’s forced to properly examine the dreadful abomination that he can barely believe is a real submission by the overly-aspiring and confident young student.

The book breaks into separate sections to cover his paper as it is read, one which is written in literary prose rather than in a research format (“literary liberties” as Baxter describes them) with irregular footnoting not leading to actual sources but instead to humorous asides and pseudo-facts (“1. For instance, to this day, Centralia still does not have a Starbucks”). The slightly jilted and very off-beat feel to these sections gives an authentic feel to the awkwardly-written college paper dynamic and contrasts well with the present day sections which are – subtly – much better in their descriptions, and characterize the two battling minds incredibly well in very small scenes. The story itself is absurdist, wild and frequently hilarious with a spattering of childish jokes one can imagine an arrogant college graduate giggling to himself over, with the titular Captain Coytus being only one of many just-about-ridiculous jokes of the read.

The book edges the juvenile with awareness and irony, using the framing device to keep you from doubting the author’s sanity and getting the same feel as if you were reading a bad fan-fiction more than a silly book written tongue in cheek.

Despite this the author is well read on the topic, managing to capture the detail and historical accuracy very well despite quickly throwing this knowledge to the hounds for something a lot funnier. This read is a real show of why you should always know the rules before you bend them, and the author even recommends several resources that he found useful in his acknowledgements if the real Jesse James comes to capture your interest during the read.

The “secret legend” itself is very interesting, following a vague biography of Jesse James and following into several other characters, skipping over periods of disinterest to the narrative chosen by Baxter and describing real and fictional events with a great love of detail while keeping a brisk pace through them, keeping a schoolboy attitude of interest on the details of sex, violence and penis jokes without getting tired or bogged down by them. It’s hard to always know where events are leading or what the conclusion to the tale may be due to the believable but silly fictional turns the story takes on a true story, and the fate of the paper as truth begins to enter the debate and opens the Professor’s migraine-infested mind to the idea that he may be wrong.

The book isn’t an incredibly long read and anyone interested by the title let alone the first few chapters is likely to get along with this book very well, even if the details might drop out of your mind about as quickly as they enter. It’s an entertaining book and fun to flick through on the bus for instance, and deserves being picked up by more than a few avid fantasy readers.