He was partly an anachronism, a hard-riding, hard-drinking cowboy straight out of an Old West that vanished decades before his birth in 1930; but he was far more than a colorful character. Former U.S. Marine, private pilot, professional boxer, Hollywood stuntman, a fine writer and storyteller, with more than a dozen books to his credit, JPS Brown was a Renaissance man in a Stetson hat.
He died, age 90, on January 9 in his home on the Rocking Chair Ranch, a few miles outside Patagonia. I learned of his death from a mutual friend and was frankly amazed that Joe had lived into his ninth decade. He’d led a dangerous life on both sides of the border, smuggling whiskey into Mexico, running cattle in the Sierra Madres, spying on drug traffickers to do research for a book he was writing about the narcotics trade. One of his five wives tried to kill him, first with a pistol that misfired, next with strychnine; and – this must be said – Joe had done his damnedest to kill himself with gin, bourbon, mescal, or anything alcoholic.
He never sanitized the people in his books, including his own family, and I’m not going to sanitize him. It has always interested me how talented people, remarkable people, people who are larger than life, are walking paradoxes, with flaws as deep as their virtues. And Joe was flawed, a reckless, roaring boy too fond of the bottle and of women; and though he had three children by his first two wives, no one was going to nominate him as Father-of-the-Year.
But there was gentler side to him: perceptive, caring, loyal, and funny in a dry, laconic way. I recall speaking to him some time ago about his fifth wife, Patsy, to whom he’d been married for 33 years. He’d looked after her with tender fidelity as Alzheimer’s mercilessly claimed her mind and personality, her very soul. Remembering my own mother’s descent into dementia, I said that caring for Patsy had to be tough on him. He replied, “Nah, Phil, it’s a privilege.”
I met him, oh, it must be 20 years ago now, through Jim Harrison, another of Patagonia’s literary sons, and Jim’s friend Bob Bergier; but I didn’t begin to know him until after I’d heard him do a public reading at the town library a handful of years later. The book was “The World in Pancho’s Eye,” an autobiography thinly disguised as a novel – the only fiction in it was the protagonist’s name, Mikey. Otherwise, it was a lyrical account of Joe’s years growing up on Depression-era ranches in Arizona and Mexico.
I had read it before listening to him read from it and talk about his experiences on month-long cattle drives from southern Sonora to the Arizona border, about his family’s battles with drought and their own demons. Joe’s voice was high and soft, almost boyish, and seemed not to belong to a deep-chested man six-feet-two and 200 pounds, with a reputation as a two-fisted brawler who had once sparred with Rocky Marciano.
What struck me, though, was the story’s gritty, granular realism, and Joe’s refusal to scrub his own background or the characters of the people who raised him. His half-Irish, half-Choctaw father, Paul Summers, was a cattleman who lived on whiskey and tequila, fed his five-year-old son bacanora on cattle drives, and abandoned his family for weeks at a time – behavior that Joe would duplicate in adulthood. JPS stands for Joseph Paul Summers. He took the name Brown from his mother’s second husband, Viv Brown.
In the book, and to me, he described his mother, Maggie Sorrels, a “woman quick to love, quick to fight, and as mean and bad-tempered as she was decent and good.”
She must have been in one of her foul moods the night she and Paul went on a bender in Nogales, with six-year-old Joe (alias Mikey) in tow. At some point, he became separated from his parents. They were too far gone to look for him, or, apparently, to even notice he was missing. A couple of prostitutes observed the little boy, wandering the dark streets alone, took pity on him, and brought him to their place of employment, where they gave him something to eat and a place to sleep. Mom and Dad retrieved him there in the morning.
In the following years, I got to know Joe better, hanging out at his house, talking about things we had in common – we both went to Catholic high schools and colleges, were on boxing teams, joined the Marines, and eventually turned to writing for a living, learning our craft in newsrooms rather than in the hothouses of MFA programs. (Joe started as a reporter for the El Paso Herald Post). Sometimes we indulged in a bit of one-upmanship. When Joe mentioned that he’d knocked around with Paul Newman, who starred in “Pocket Money,” the film version of Joe’s 1972 novel, “Jim Kane,” I couldn’t resist countering that I’d hung with Robert Redford, when I was writing an Esquire story about the filming in Montana of “A River Runs Through It.” Kind of our version of Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Redford).
JPS Brown knew the southwest and Mexico, and he wrote what he knew. It was in his DNA. In 1849, his great-great grandfather, William Parker, pioneered a ranch in the San Rafael valley. Parker Canyon is named for him. I think of Joe as a western writer, as opposed to a writer of westerns. Writers of westerns – Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Max Brand – rely on potboiler plots and melodrama, peopling their tales with gunslingers and sexy dance-hall girls; western writers depict the Old West as it really was, or the modern West as it really is, without sentimentality. Larry McMurtry and Thomas McGuane are preeminent examples; so is the least sentimental of all, Cormac McCarthy.
Joe’s major contributions to this genre are the nonfiction “Wolves at Our Door,” a harrowing depiction of the cross-border drug trade, and his 1974 novel, “The Forests of the Night,” a tale as gripping in its way as “Moby Dick.” Based on Joe’s adventures in the wild Sierra Madres, the narrative turns on a Mexican rancher’s pursuit of a cattle-killing jaguar. Known as El Yoco – local slang for “The Devil” – the big cat acquires dimensions as mythic as Melville’s white whale, while the rancher, Adan Martinillo, becomes a monomaniacal Ahab in his frustrated quest to kill the jaguar. But “The Forests of the Night” is much more than a man-versus-beast story; it’s also an unflinching look into the beast that dwells in man, which is presented through a subplot involving a ranch hand named Chombe, a murderer and rapist.
The story reaches its climax only when Adan gives up all hope of ever killing the marauding cat. That moment reminded me of a similar one in William Faulkner’s novella, “The Bear.”
“The Forests of the Night” received high praise from critics and literary scholars, about which Joe had ambivalent feelings. I remember him smiling, one afternoon as we ate his homemade chili, and saying somewhat ruefully that the book had been lauded by “academics.”
He was for the most part dry in the years I knew him, though he’d had a tumble or two off the wagon. I was surprised to see him one Sunday morning at Mass in St. Theresa’s, seeking to climb back on with help from a higher power.
Joe was a first-rate writer, but a lousy career manager. I had the impression that something in him, some self-sabotaging gremlin, restrained him from doing what was necessary to achieve the recognition he yearned for. Ten years ago, he teamed up with a Tucson filmmaker, Rick Padilla, to form a multimedia company that republished several of his out-of-print books and brought out Kindle editions as well. The venture revived his reputation to a degree, but not, as I see it, to the degree it deserves.
He and I once joked that for a writer, death is a good career move. I pray it will be for him.
Last year, driving back to town from a day’s quail hunt with a friend, I stopped off at the Rocking Chair to pay Joe a call. The man who answered the door said Joe was resting, but he would get in touch later on. He never did. I’m sorry I didn’t make another effort to see him. He and I were very different, yet I feel that we were brothers, and I will miss him.