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Once upon a time in the west

15th April 2014 - Joshua Piercey


While Westerns remain popular in America, they have largely fallen out of favour with British readers. This is a great pity, suggests Joshua Piercey, from our London Waterloo Station branch, as they are missing out on some wonderful fiction, both classic and contemporary.

 

 

The western is probably my favourite genre, and so I'm rooting for Tarantino. The director has declared his love for the western and his desire to bring it back to the front of the Hollywood consciousness, but the wheels of the machine are notoriously sluggish, and one director working alone might have his work cut out for him. The leaking of the script for his latest film (another western to follow up the success of Django Unchained) has derailed it for the time being, and I'm hoping his strop doesn't last - he's threatened to shelve the project completely in protest.

 

DeadwoodThe western was once a Hollywood staple, but from the 50s onwards the popularity of the genre waned, replaced by cop dramas and the new 'action thrillers.' Aside from the occasional remake (3:10 to Yuma and the Coens' True Grit), and the occasional star turn (Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James), the western doesn't seem to be a bankable prospect as far as Tinseltown is concerned. And even with the critical success of Deadwood, the new credibility of television drama is yet to bless the genre with its touch. Is 'Breaking Bad with spurs' too much to ask?

 

Written fiction to the rescue, as always.

 

The list below contains omissions that will have purists gnashing their teeth (No Zane Grey? No Virginian?). It is compiled via my own bias, naturally, but I've also attempted to give as broad a representation as I could of the genre as it currently stands. This list therefore leans towards the contemporary, and also away from the sole vehicle of literary fiction. I also tried to make sure the books were easy to acquire in physical form. This has undone a few more obscure ones, and leads to my biggest regret: every author on the list is male. If you don't mind some searching, I recommend you correct this oversight, starting with The Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin. Annie Proulx has written some books that have a little of the western in their soul: Postcards is one, and is among my favourite novels.

 

Anyway, the list. 11 excellent pieces of literature inspired by the Old West, in no particular order:

 

ScalpedScalped by Jason Aaron and R M Guéra

I could easily have filled this list with graphic novels. The comic book industry fell in love with the cowboy much as the pulps did, and their fortunes were much the same: a slump in the latter part of the 20th century, and then a slow-burning but steady revisionist revival. Just missing out on a spot were Ennis and Dillon's gleefully profane classic Preacher, and The Sixth Gun, a horror romp centered around magic pistols. Scalped is worth picking up even if you don't care for the funnybooks, it transcends its medium and genre much as The Wire did. It also focuses on the modern experience of Native Americans, something I think is sorely under-represented in contemporary fiction. The Lakota residents of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation struggle to preserve something of their culture as they battle against poverty, crime and addiction.

 

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

This novel's inclusion on the Man Booker shortlist was met with pointed surprise by some members of the literati, but this is not only dark, well-told and very funny but also wonderfully original. The Sisters Brothers is a worthy reminder that far from being a constraint, the tropes of a genre can allow for subversion and play. Its plot and cast and central Macguffin are like nothing you'll have encountered recently.

 

The SonThe Son by Philipp Meyer

American Rust was always going to be a tough act to follow, Philipp Meyer obviously decided to go big or go home with this blood-spattered, multi-generational saga. Its portrayal of a dying indigenous culture is unflinching but fascinating. A thoroughly modern western.

 

Lucky Luke by 'Morris' and various writers

He's the fastest cowpoke in the west - so slick he can outdraw his own shadow - but Lucky Luke is also a paragon of fairness, justice and social balance. Younger readers will be delighted by his resourcefulness and cool, older heads will smile at the affectionate parodies of western stereotypes. The majority of these classic tales have been translated from the original French, and are perfect for fans of Tintin and Asterix (in fact René Goscinny penned a few Lucky Lukes).

 

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I read and re-read The Call of the Wild when I was a kid, and although it's set in an land of ice and snow rather than dusty drylands, an adult re-assessment reveals it as clearly a western. All the boxes are checked: frontier towns, crazy prospectors, fear of the wilderness and its inhabitants, the law of the pack. Terrifically exciting, having a dog as the protagonist makes it surprisingly accessible: one for younger teenage boys and other recalcitrant readers.

 

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

There are plenty of source texts for film adaptations that could have made the list, and I picked True Grit because it's a good place to begin, familiar but distinct enough from both its adaptations to be its own animal. And it's a great book: simply put together but with great characterisation and description, with a laconic humour that stops it becoming overwrought. And it's my favourite John Wayne film by a country mile, although that's not relevant.

 

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

It would be remiss not to include a 'Weird West' book - the blending of horror-fantasy and pulp western that expanded and sustained the genre in the 80s and 90s. King wanted to write a fantasy epic comparable to The Lord of the Rings, but just the first line - 'The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed' - makes it a true western in my eyes. Much edited, much changed, now the first part of a literary sequence that stretches the imagination, The Gunslinger nevertheless tries to address and codify the cowboy as archetype, something
King is very good at.

 

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Sometimes considered McCarthy's magnum opus, this bloody and unapologetic novel is almost mythic in its violence. The ultimate revisionist western, it's about as far way from the Lone Ranger and men in white hats as you can get. With all that said (and it bears repeating, this is not one for the faint of heart or stomach), Blood Meridian is McCarthy's writing at its best, and his quest towards the dark heart of us at its most acute and dispassionate. Comparisons to Moby-Dick hold merit - this is a raw, brutal icon.

 

Butcher's CrossingButcher's Crossing by John Williams

Had it not been for the incredible success of the recent reprint of Stoner, this powerful, unsettling novel might have been forgotten. And that would have been a shame, because in my opinion it's an even better book. This is the west as it probably really was: no gunfights, no stagecoaches, just the wild edge of things. William's writes with tact and understated beauty of a landscape that can - and does - drive men beyond themselves.

 

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

The word 'epic' is thrown around a lot in relation to genre fiction, but this Pulitzer Prize-winner is deserving of the term. Larry McMurtry is hugely responsible for the modern re-addressing of the western genre, and this remains his greatest contribution. Broad, fantastically well-researched, generous but unsentimental, it's big but doesn't feel flabby. The occasional poetry and common brutality of the west are both rendered in McMurtry's laconic, unbiased prose. If you read one
western in your life, this should probably be it.

 

And finally...

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

This is my favourite western, and one of my favourite books of all time. I couldn't leave it out, but McCarthy already has a book on this list, and Blood Meridian probably edges out ahead in terms of acclaim. But this is the book that made me fall in love with westerns and the idea of westerns. John Grady Cole goes in search of the life of a cowboy, and finds less and more than he wanted. It doesn't all turn out for the best, but it still made me want to do the same.

 

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