Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Go West, Young Writer

Western novel, the--a longform narrative set in the area defined by the western slope of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, from about 1850 until the present day; any pulp, mainstream, or literary narrative dealing with a combination of moral and ethical issues being investigated in an atmosphere suggestive of Western issues and needs; a regional novel evocative of the customs, language, and politics of the American West.

The Western novel was thought by critics and publishers to have had its heyday before the ending of World War II, a belief ratified by the press run of Larry McMurtry's 1985 novel, Lonesome Dove, a sprawling, laconic, and limber narrative, reminiscent in its evocative way of a clutch of wild horses at playful romp. Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature that year, has cowboys, Indians, cattle drives, cattle rustling, saloons, and dance hall girls; it had the dry stoicism of aging lawmen, broken relationships, sudden and violent death, horses, and the relentlessness of the overhead sun, scorching everything including the patience of otherwise taciturn men. 

 Also included were women who resented the dull humdrum of prairie life and the need to have a decent dinner for the men who worked the farms and ranches. In short, Lonesome Dove had humanity, just as surely as McMurtry's earlier works, Horseman, Pass by, and The Last Picture Show captured core samplings of the artifacts and zeitgeist of particular times in the American West. So too did Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose bring to dramatic life the conflicting personality types who were taken up with the grandeur of the landscape.

It probably began with Owen Wister's The Virginian, which helped articulate and define codes of behavior that through cliche and repetition became stereotypes of what to expect. Ditto that for a seemingly iconic work from dentist-turned-author Zane Grey, and his Riders of the Purple Sage, who did give us Lassiter, a prototype Western hero who can also be seen in Jack Schaefer's Shane, although more nuanced and believable in Schaefer's Monte Walsh. Walter Van Tilburg Clark's 1940 Western, The Ox-bow Incident, is set in the Nevada of 1885, taking on the theme of frontier justice and its applications to strangers appearing in the midst of a small town where everyone knew everyone else. A.B. Guthrie's 1947 novel, The Big Sky, uses three fictional mountain men to dramatize the early Caucasian denizens of the West, foragers, hunters-and-gathers, to use the anthropological terms, setting the stage for the farmers and ranchers to follow. 

The Big Sky is undershot with a sense of Paradise about to devolve, of a persistent sense of impending foreclosure as humanity en mass moved to encounter it.

The Western novel is an historical novel, just as likely to have its pulp and mainstream visions as any other genre, but equally apt to have works of substantial worth, works that accurately define and dramatize the human condition, as it was and as it still is. The 1975 Glendon Swarthout novel, The Shootist, has been acclaimed by the Western Writers of America as "One of the best Western novels ever written," an indication that John Bernard Books, a legendary gunfighter who arrives in the El Paso, Texas of 1901, has about him an aura and subtext like that of Monte Walsh and of McMurtry's iconic Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. Although now recognized as an idiosyncratic and vital force in the field of the thriller, Elmore Leonard has many a memorable Western novel and short story to his credit, notable among them and worthy of study, 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, and the short story, "The Tonto Woman."

Western themes abound, barbed wire and its implications being one, a logistical impasse between cattle and sheep ranchers another, and free range versus controlled range yet another. Even with the enormous success of Lonesome Dove, the historical writer is likely to find a sense of publishers' conventional wisdom that the Western has seen its heyday, but it would be a shame for the writer who has a genuine feel for the land, people, history, and potential of the American West to be barbed wired off by such conventional wisdom.

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