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To Almost Punch Dick Cheney: CJ Box's Out of Range Preview and Review by Darren Nguyen

Hello readers! My name is Darren Nguyen and I will be reviewing CJ Box’s Joe Pickett Series. I try to take an analytical/thematic approach to evaluating CJ Box’s books. I want to see how applicable is this book to my life and determine any messages Box wants to convey. This is the 5th book in the series and here are the links to the older review for Trophy Hunt, Winterkill, Savage Run, and Open Season.

Fed up with life, Jackson Hole Game Warden, Will Jensen committed suicide in his home. He died as a divorced drunkard. Jensen left no suicide note, but his regrets were written with blood. Saddened by the loss of a legendary game warden, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department reassigns Saddlestring Game Warden Joe Pickett to cover for Jensen while the department looks for a replacement.

Being reassigned has strained Joe’s marriage with Marybeth. While Joe is out of the house most of the day, he often comes home late at night. Since Joe will be living in Jackson Hole, which is hundreds of miles from Saddlestring, he will have to make more of an effort to be there for his wife. Therefore, he promises to call Marybeth every night. What can possibly go wrong?

Before Joe can leave for Jackson Hole, he is stopped by Trey Crump, Joe’s supervisor. Crump asks for help to trap and kill a rogue bear. While staking out the bar the bear is known to raid, Crump tells Joe that Jensen’s life had been in a downward spiral for the last six months. First Jensen started to be erratic and unprofessional in his monthly reports. Next Jensen was arrested for DUI twice and cited for numerous misdemeanors. The final straw was the divorce. Crump deeply regrets not being there for Jensen when Jensen needed help the most. Joe, on the other hand, has begun to develop the idea that Will’s death is not a suicide. While musing about Saddlestring, Joe and Crump see the bear on radar.

Armed with shotguns, the two men approached the trapped bear. While the bear could not harm the game wardens, Joe hesitated to kill the bear. Crump wasted no time. He fired twice at the bear, killing it. It was at that moment, Joe realized that he could not bring himself to take a life of something staring at him.

The next day, Joe arrives in Jackson Hole and settles in Will Jensen’s office. He then meets Randy Pope who is the Assistant Director of the Game and Fish Department. Pope reprimands Joe for all the expenses Joe has caused over the past few years: lost trucks, snowmobiles, and horses. Joe reminds Pope that he did what had to be done and that doing the right thing is more important than saving money. Pope angrily leaves Jensen’s office (they will meet again soon).

Later, Joe attends Will Jensen’s funeral and meets Jensen’s wife: Susan. She tells Joe not to trust Stella; however, Joe seems attracted to Stella. He got the same feeling when he first met Marybeth. ZING!

Stella Ennis is the wife of Don Ennis who is an architect. Currently, Don is working with the Good Meat Movement (GMM) to construct a neighborhood that is close to farmland. The GMM believes that people are out of touch with their meat products and seeks to reconnect man and meat by having its residents participate with the raising and killing of livestock. However, this project is delayed because Will Jensen refused to give his approval for the project, citing that it blocks a bear migration route. Joe shares the same sentiment with Jensen and tells Don that he will need 2 weeks to review the documents in order to make a decision on the project.

As Joe deliberates the GMM’s neighborhood, Jensen’s skeletons starts to catch up with Joe. Months before Jensen killed himself, he suspected that Smoke Van Horn, Jackson’s Hole’s lead hunting guide, is planting salt blocks to attract deer. Joe also finds that Jensen is missing a notebook from his office. To make matters worse, Stella Ennis is withholding important information from Joe.

As Joe starts to look deeper in the downfall of Will, he uncovers hidden secrets of Will’s life and the events that led up to his death. However, Smoke Van Horn and Don Ennis stand to oppose Joe’s investigation and the conflict that ensues challenges Joe’s values and forces him to make decision he will regret. As Joe mentioned earlier, upholding the greater good is more important than financial responsibility. So is sacrificing Joe’s values too high a price to uphold the greater good?

Law Enforcement and the Community(minor spoilers) Joe said, “I don’t figure it’s my job to make you look good, Assistant Director Pope. I think I’ve got a higher calling than that”.

“So,” Pope said, sarcastically, “you have a higher calling. But you’re in Jackson Hole now, Joe.” (Box, P. 69)

Out of Range challenges Joe’s quest to fulfil his “higher calling” greatly. Jackson Hole introduces new challenges to Joe Picket. The city has targeted Joe’s fundamental values and forces him to make decisions that he has never done before. One such challenge is Smoke Van Horn.

Smoke Van Horn is the owner of a multigenerational hunting guide business. He has lead countless of people on successful hunting trips and is, it is implied, a big part of Jackson Hole’s hunting tourism economy. However, Jensen suspects that Horn places salt blocks to attract deer. Because Horn can predict where the deer are, his hunting success rate goes up along with Horn’s reputation.

Though Jensen could not gather the evidence to convict Horn of planting salt blocks in deer county, Joe did. When confronted, Horn defends his actions and argues that him placing salt blocks is not illegal because is analogous to “feeding hay to ten thousand goddamned elk so tourists can look at `em” ( Box p. 246). Seeing Horn’s arguments, Joe proposes a deal with the angered hunter. If Horn removes the salt blocks, then Joe will destroy the pictures and forget Horn’s crimes. This deal is a huge departure of what Joe typically does in the previous books and, to a certain extent, represents a character break. In Savage Run Joe ruthlessly targets a man (Jim Finotta) who is suspected of poaching an animal years ago. Furthermore, in Trophy Hunt Joe conducted an investigation independent of the Murder and Mutilation Task Force, drawing the ire of FBI agent Tony Portenson and Sheriff Bud Barnum.

Joe goes as far as risking his job in order to get this man behind bars. I even praised Joe’s fierce dedication to enforcing the law with zero tolerance. So why is Joe letting Horn off the hook when Joe clearly has the evidence to put Horn in jail? What happened? Good Wyoming steak.

I’ve been to Jackson Hole, and the steak there is pretty good! I enjoyed the seasoning [I think it was salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary(?)/oregano(?), and possibly more] of the steak, but the cook on it was not really the best. The bison steak that they cooked was a little tough in my opinion. However, the seasoning managed to enhance the gaminess. However, this steak is not to die for, let alone risk my job for. There are better things in life to risk my job for. . . .

My comments on Wyoming steak, before the confrontation with Horn, Joe was investigating a cabin for Will’s old notebook. While Joe was searching, Horn barged in and cooked steak for Joe. They had a couple of beers together and had a good time. Talking with Horn made Joe like him a lot. Smoke Van Horn is like that friend who always gets into trouble a lot, much like Loki in Marvel Movies. Joe is similar to Thor: even though Loki does commit crimes (like invading New York City), Thor is there to not only stop Loki, but also to remind him that he can be better. Despite Loki’s crimes Thor chooses to spare Loki from death and gives him lighter sentences such as jail. Much like Thor, it is tempting for Joe to just outright punish Horn, but the fact that Joe gave Horn the option to atone immediately without any severe consequence demonstrates that Joe believed that Horn can be better. Despite Joe’s mercy, Horn refuses to remove the salt blocks, saying “I don’t think what I did is wrong. . . . It’s the big game set up to get rid of people like me” (Box p. 247). Eventually, this disagreement in values leads to a shootout and Horn dies, keeping his reputation intact.

Arresting a friend is something Joe has not done in his career. In the previous books, the convicts that Joe arrested are usually out-of-state people or crazy locals but not someone that Joe is close too. I believe that Joe may have a soft stance on his friends because after all Nate Romanowski is a fugitive and Joe lies to Portenson on his knowledge of Nate’s crimes (In Winterkill, it is implied that Nate killed Melinda Strickland and staged the death to appear as a suicide). This encounter, given the context, may indicate that corruption has sowed its seeds into Joe.

Obviously, confronting your friend is hard, but it is something that must be done, especially if you notice that your friend is going down the wrong path. I prefer that people are direct with me, and as a result I try to be honest with my friends and peers. Too often I find myself unable to be honest to my friends because I am afraid that I may hurt their feelings or offend them. However, I have to realize that part of being a good friend is telling the truth rather than being a yes-man. With my friends, I try to be as honest with them as possible. I point out their mistakes, inaccuracies, and misconceptions. Sometimes I get into arguments, and sometimes I am wrong. When I get it wrong, I apologize and move on. Being wrong is not a deterrent to me but rather motivation for me to be a better and more reliable friend.

At a position of power, it is easy to believe that “proper” utilization of that power is to help your friends and family. While in most cases loyalty between family and duty can coexist, in other cases, such as law enforcement or being a doctor, loyalty to family and to duty cannot always coexist. Power corrupts people, and often people in power confuse the idea of helping friends with fulfilling their duty. The most extreme case would be the “political machines” which were prominent in the late 1800s in the US. Political machine was a system in which a political boss has enough votes to completely dominate city or state affairs. Often these bosses would gain votes by hiring allies to governmental positions or endorse potential political allies. Once all the pieces are in place, the political boss basically has a democratic dictatorship. Although, Joe cannot go that far, offering to let Horn off the hook easily is something that cannot be overlooked. It does raise the question of whether people can get away with crimes just by being good friends with Joe. After all, Horn only bonded with Joe for a couple of hours and that was enough to get Joe to show leniency on Horn’s crimes. Joe’s mercy ends up backfiring when Horn refused to change his ways. This conflict eventually spilled the blood of Horn. Even with the death of Horn, Joe does not regret going easy on the deceased hunter.

Often in cases where two friends have irreconcilable differences (such as Professor X and Magneto, from the X Men films for example) it is sometimes best just to leave that difference alone and focus on what brings two friends together. However, if that difference is something major, like a political affliction, then those two friends do not deserve to be friends at all. Part of friendship is a mutual acceptance and understanding of difference. I do not have many friends who agree with the majority of my political stances. Despite our differences I continue to be friends with them because I respect their political stance and they respect mine.

Joe and Horn should not have been friends. Although I recognize that law enforcement officers should have a strong relationship with their community, I believe that those relationships should fall under the line of parent-child rather than friend-friend. The power difference between law enforcement and its constituents is too great for them to be friends on equal terms. Currently, the relationship between law enforcement and its community is at an all-time low. Much of that is attributed to police brutality, institutional racism, and mass incarceration. The police is portrayed as an oppressing group because they have a lot of power over communities. Do you feel nervous when you are in the presence of a police officer? Even if you did nothing wrong? Do you avoid eye contact? I digress

In the case of Joe and Horn, it is permissible for the law enforcement officer to have a strong and professional relationship with his constituent. But at the end of the day, the law enforcement officer, whether on duty or off duty, has a legal and moral obligation to enforce the law. If that constituent is committed or suspected of committed a crime, then the officer should arrest the criminal and the court of law decides whether the person is innocent or guilty. Joe is justified in confronting Horn and their “friendship” should not get away in enforcing proper law, even if Joe takes off the badge and uniform. Can society function if befriending a law enforcement officer is enough to get away with a crime, no matter how petty or major?

I watched too much TV to know where this is going… (minor spoilers) “Never trust a beautiful woman; especially one who’s interested in you” -Magneto (X-Men 2)

One conflict that is presented in Out of Range is that Joe’s marriage with Marybeth is strained. While in Jackson Hole, Joe is unable to call Marybeth, breaking his promise to her, and he fraternize with Stella Ennis. Stella Ennis is an important character in this book because she serves as the “missing piece” in the Will Jensen case. Jensen’s wife warned Joe not to trust Stella, but Joe ends up associating with Stella for the “investigation.” When meeting with Stella, she flirted with Joe almost instantly. Joe rebuffed her advances but after learning that she is the last person Will was seen with, Joe decided to keep Stella close.

However, as Joe continued to talk to Stella something changed in his thinking about her.

“Why did she stay in his thoughts? Was the danger she offered as attractive to him as her manner and beauty? Susan Jensen had called her a predator. Maybe she was, Joe thought. So why didn’t he mind being her prey? He couldn’t answer the questions, and wasn’t sure he wanted to” (Box p. 223)

It is clear that Joe has an internal struggle. Joe’s marriage with Marybeth is something he considers very important. Marybeth is what keeps Joe going and motivated. Even though Joe is out of the house most of the day, he still has a wife and kids to come home to. However, in Jackson Hole all of that is taken away. Now Joe has a void in his heart, and Stella Ennis fills that void and Joe is conflicted. On one hand, he is a married man with kids, and fraternizing with a woman he just met a couple of days ago is a betrayal to his oath. On the other hand, he is lonely in Jackson Hole and Stella is the person that can help him. Because he is unable to confront this cognitive dissonance head one, he chooses to resolve it by ignoring it. However, that decision turns out to be a big mistake.

Here’s another reason why Stella is an important character: her impact on Joe. When Joe first met Stella he had a ZING! feeling which he described as the same feeling he felt when he first saw Marybeth. There is no evidence to indicate that Joe was in love or had feelings for Stella, but there is evidence that he showed interest in her and gave her the wrong idea about his feelings.

Chapter 31- is when Stella and Joe’s relationship escalate significantly. When talking with Stella, Joe is surprised by how “comfortable he was with her, and how easy she was to talk with” (Box, p. 268). It was from that thought that Joe answered his earlier questions about his relationship with her. The conversation reaches its apex when Stella basically admitted her feelings for him saying “I want to be with you Joe, if only for a little while. As long as its real” (Box p. 268). At the spur of the moment, Joe makes the mistake by responding asking her “what about Don?” (Box p. 268).

Although Joe instantly regrets saying that, the fact that he said it is a Freudian Slip. A Freudian Slip is an error in speech or action that reveals something about the person’s subconscious thinking. Because Joe mentioned Don, he is implying that the reason why he is hesitant to confess to Stella is Stella’s marriage to Don rather than Joe’s marriage to Marybeth. Joe could have easily rebuffed Stella by simply saying that he is married and that he already has the woman he wants by his side. Simple, right? Apparently not- Stella somehow took advantage of Joe’s loneliness to place a strong foothold in his heart. Now Joe’s loyalty to his marriage is challenged by immediate pleasure. If Joe chooses to push his relationship with Stella further, in the short run he may be satisfied. However, in the long run he will lose his wife and kids and end up like Will Jensen. On the other hand, Joe will have to deal with the current suffering and pray that one day he can return to his wife and kids. Stella gives Joe the 3rd option which involves a temporary fling and a triumph return to Marybeth. This choice is a slippery slope and the one Joe chooses.

Eventually Joe’s choice leads him to the 2nd major event in their relationship. Once Joe managed to put the pieces together about Jensen’s death, he confronts Stella about it. Stella admitted to killing Jensen when he tried to commit suicide. She said that she loved him before pulling the trigger. She told Joe that Don drugged Jensen as revenge for Jensen’s refusal to grant Don the approval for the Good Meat Community Project and for Stella’ affair with Jensen. Joe was drinking when listening to Stella’s confession, and things go south from there.

Imaging falling for a woman so hard that you are willing to punch someone in front of the vice president. Granted that the Vice President at the time was Dick Cheney, so wanting to punch him is understandable if you swing that way. For the record, I do not endorse violence against public officials or any private citizens no matter their political affiliation or past actions. Despite your political beliefs, being violent in front of the vice president is not the right answer. Ultimately Joe punched Don in front of the Vice President. Joe’s anger at Don is fueled not only by what he did to Jensen but also to Stella. I believe that Joe made the wrong choice in regards to trusting Stella because she gave him the truth at the cost of Joe being drugged, beaten by Secret Service, and nearly losing his marriage.

To be fair, Joe is mostly at fault for this situation. To me, Joe goes through life upholding virtues such as justice, family, and loyalty. In his interactions with Stella, Joe betrays his commitment to family. While I understand that Joe is lonely and far from home, he has no excuse when it comes to hanging out with Stella. Joe is the person to go through hell and back in order to uphold his virtues. I admired his fierce dedication to uphold the law and be a good father to his children. I was surprised that Joe responded to Stella’s advances. I daresay that Joe was acting immorally, according to virtue ethics, when he responds to Stella’s flirting. Ultimately, Joe was in the wrong for being easily distracted by Stella and he almost broke his marriage because of the immediate gratitude.

Temptation is something we have to deal with in our lives, and often knowing what is the right choice seems easy when looking back, but difficult when deciding. Temptation is the manifestation of our lack of will/passion for something. If I do not like doing homework, then the temptation to play video games is stronger than my duty as a student to do my homework. Learning to make the right choice can be done either by experience or following an example of someone who has been though a similar situation.

Often you will have to experience the consequences of making the wrong choice in order to really understand where impulsive decisions can lead to. Though this reasoning is not applicable to extreme tasks such as drugs, alcohol, and crime. It can apply to the little moments in life such as studying for a tests, deciding whether to join a club, or interacting with friends. I believe that experience is life’s greatest teacher and one of the few options life has for temptation.

Final Word Out of Range is an interesting book. As I mentioned before, I see Joe upholds certain virtues. He does his best to embody those virtues. While in Jackson Hole, Joe’s virtues are challenged. On one hand he has to execute justice and on the other hand he has to be loyal to his family. This clash of virtues is unsettling towards Joe and causes him to make bad decisions. It is the first time Joe has to deal with challenges all by himself. Nate and Marybeth are too far away to help and it is up to Joe to save the day. However, it is very evident from the book that Joe barely made it. He was drugged, beaten, and fraternized with shady characters. I think an important lesson from this book is to cherish those who support you because without them you are more vulnerable than you think you are. In college, I am hundreds of miles away from my family and one reason why I was able to make the right decisions and work hard is because of my friends.

Anyways, the next book that I will be writing about is In Plain Sight. In this book, Joe will now pay the consequences for this action. Or inaction to be accurate.


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