Friday, March 25, 2016

Horsing Around with Westerns

You don't remember either of their names, although you are certain both men wore suits on a regular basis. There is every probability each had only the one suit, which he wore at work, then changed at home. The one who ran the used bookstore in Hollywood wore a blue suit. The one who ran the used book store on Santa Monica Boulevard wore a gray suit.

Both men were critical of your reading habits. The owner of the used book store on Santa Monica would make a tooth-sucking, tsk sound when he went through the books you'd decided to buy. "How is it you're reading such drek?" he'd say.  Blue suit would say, "So this is how you spend your time."
Each in his way had a measurable effect on what you read, and of course what you read, in aggregate, began to have the most measurable effect of all. 

The bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard had bulging stacks of pulp Westerns, among them Ranch Romances, Real Western, and .44 Western Magazine, which you'd begun to read along with any Western magazine publishing stories by Elmer Kelton, Ernest Haycox, and Elmore Leonard.

At the time, while you were thinking you could advance your writing career by writing for mystery, science fiction, and Western pulps, you were editing a man who old regularly to hardcover Western and mystery publishers as well as being story editor for a popular TV anthology, Tales of Wells-Fargo. Based on an introduction he wrote to a selection of his short fiction, you got the man to write a more comprehensive memoir, The Pulp Jungle. In your dealings with this author, he seemed to understand you as well if not better than you understood yourself.

"You can read Shane all you want," Frank Gruber said, "but the novel you really want to read is no doubt the best Western ever written."  Both the blue suit and the gray suit agreed with this assessment and, from the fact of your awareness of it, seemed to regard you as less than the lost cause they'd both supposed. In time gray suit and blue suit each found and gave you a copy of Jack Schaefer's memorable novel, Monte Walsh."

"This is a bildungsroman," the gray suit said, when he gave you a used paperback version.  "This is what Saul Bellow would have written had he written Westerns," blue suit said, giving you the copy he'd managed to secure for you.

Monte Walsh is indeed what blue suit and gray suit said if it as well as the quintessential character-driven story arc you favor as the ideal template for a story arc. In the most basic simplification, all the character ever wanted was to work where horses were an integral part of the setting.  No horses, no Monte. He didn't mind Texas longhorn cows, didn't mind boiled coffee or leathery steaks although he hated automobiles and machine-rolled cigarettes.

The more you reread, the more you learn about storytelling, background, and that difficult-to-master narrative filter, point of view. In Aspects of the Novel,one of the more memorable )and readable) books on writing craft you've spent time with, its author, E.M. Forester, talks of causality and the way events in a novel trigger subsequent events. 

In his own stand-out novel, A Passage to India, Forester demonstrates his intimacy with events that trigger subsequent events and consequences, to the point where you quite agree and understand their importance. Monte Walsh seems a contrary lesson, except for the fact that the causality is the sense of progress to be found in many coming-of-age novels, We see Monte in various stages of growing up, from his early youth until the adventure that takes his life; this is all the causality we need to cause us to continue turning pages, if only to see what Monte will do next.

Monte is everything the actor Marion Morrison attempted to portray in his role as John Wayne.  Monte did not have to work at being authentic and of a time and place lost except in history. Jack Schaefer, a writer from Connecticut, came West, captured the time and work of the cattle drive, the life in the bunkhouse, and the lives of the men who in all probability spent more time sleeping outside, under the stars, than they did under the bunk house covers.

With each fresh reading of Monte Walsh, you see a clearer vision of a character who becomes the force of inevitability in his own life. Before Monte is well enough along in his twenties, we know how life will not break him or lessen our regard for him.  He is, as the epitaph on his grave says, "A good man with a horse." And to you, who have ridden perhaps fifteen rental horses in his lifetime, wagered sums of money on perhaps fifty others, and are content to think of the horse as a proud, dignified animal, experience the loss of Monte as a friend each time you revisit his superb history.

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