A Fresh Take on the Western Novel

Jennifer Schuessler notes the appearance of Charles Portis's True Grit at No. 11 on this week's NYT trade fiction list, thanks to the new film adaptation currently in theaters.  I wonder how many libraries were blindsided here?  We had only a couple of ancient, grubby copies when the hold requests began to pile up.

I wonder now whether my previous blogpost, Frontierland, was anything more than a reaction to the mind-waves of all those people going to see True Grit.

I've never read it.  I do have a favorite Portis novel though, Masters of Atlantis, which I have mentioned here before.

Scheussler draws some original insights from a column by Allen Barra in The Daily Beast, Who Is the Best Western Novelist?  Barra questions the standing of Cormac McCarthy and briefly discusses a number of other contenders for the title, such as  Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), Ron Hansen's Desperadoes (1979) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), and Pete Dexter's Deadwood (1986).  The list here would make a good start for a book display that would have appeal beyond fans of the Western genre.

Something about McCarthy has always put me off reading him.  I think Barra has put his finger on it:
McCarthy's prose is so rich and gravid with metaphor that many have been willing to overlook his shortcomings and excesses. In McCarthy's West, no one knocks at the door of a lonely cabin in the wilderness to ask for a drink of water without getting a treatise on the meaning of life and death. Every other prostitute is named "Magdalena." (Has there ever been a creditable female character in any of his books?) Mexican pimps are as portentous as Death in a Bergman film. Characters you might think would be as inarticulate as the cast of Jersey Shore say things like "I came here as a heretic fleeing a prior life" (The Crossing) and "Your world totters on an unspoken labyrinth of questions" (Cities of the Plain).
...It's not difficult to see why Blood Meridian is such a hit with high falutin' critics like Bloom. Consider enigmatic passages like this: "For this will to deceive that is in things luminous may manifest itself likewise in retrospect and so by slight of some fixed part of a journey already accomplished may also post men to fraudulent destinies."

Looks as if somebody's been readin' The Portable Nietzsche by the camp fire.


Jules Aimé said...

Interesting post.

I love western stories in the abstract but I am often disappointed by them when I actually read them.

But I also remember years ago buying an audio book of Zane Grey's Secret of Quaking Asp Cabin for a long road trip. It was the mirror image of McCarthy: on one level it was just awful writing—Grey seems to have written with a thesaurus at his elbow—but it was a magnificent, gripping story from beginning to end. When I read McCarthy and Thomas McGuane I sometimes think they might produce much better books if they weren't trying to be such good writers. (There is a quip about Edward Hopper somewhere that he would have been a lesser artist if he'd been a better painter.)

Brett said...

I have seen many more Western films than I have read Western novels. I have observed as a librarian that "genre" Westerns are read by men who would would not read anything at all otherwise. I've had male patrons who would only read Louis L'Amour. My favorite "Western"? Maybe Death Comes for the Archbishop, which for many would not even qualify.

I spent six years Out West in the '80's, in Texas mostly, but in New Mexico too. To me, the American West seemed terminally macho and intellectually impoverished. I am much happier as an effete Easterner.