The New York Society Library’s Cataloging Department recently took a field trip to another membership library,
“The West as a great myth is one of the most important products of the American imagination, and yet it has been touched upon only superficially…it is usually believed that western materials are adequate for gunman paperbacks and cowboy movies only. This is an error which can be rectified by the production of a superior art, and such art, in turn, can only be created out of a profound knowledge and feeling for western materials and the western experience.” —Charles Neider, as quoted in The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah's Last Western Film, by Paul Seydor
For this installment of Book Recommendations, Head of Acquisitions Steven McGuirl, Acquisitions/Circulation Assistant Patrick Rayner, and our friend Andy McCarthy of the New York Public Library, highlight Westerns that embrace and transcend the genre clichés and transform the myth and fact of the American Western frontier into quality fiction—the “superior art” that Neider hopes for. If you have a favorite Western not featured here, write to us about it (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones | Charles Neider
Charles Neider did indeed create a work of superior art when he wrote The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1953), and it was his “profound knowledge and feeling” for the famous story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that provided the “western materials” he needed. The Authentic Death… is narrated by a fictional character named Doc Baker who seeks to expose lies and clear up the myths and legends that have grown up around Hendry Jones and Dad Longworth—characters based closely on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Garrett and “the Kid” have been the basis for hundreds of books and movies since the latter’s death in 1881, but Neider uses this well-worn ground effectively to explore themes of violence, youth, aging, and more. Neider did years of research, and the Western setting is treated seriously with hard-edged realism. Although it hits a lot of genre marks—gunfights, daring escapes, horses, etc.—the book is free of clichés and sentimentality. Neider’s novel was a crucial influence on two well-known films, Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but unfortunately the book seems almost forgotten today. This is truly a shame, for it is an exceptionally fine novel. It deserves to be put back in print and sold to a wider readership.
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid | Michael Ondaatje
Another book to use the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid effectively as source material is Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970). Ondaatje’s first novel, however, takes an experimental approach that is quite different than Neider’s traditional realism. Ondaatje fights the category of novel, weaving poetry into a fragmented narrative and using a scrambled chronology. A dark, lovely book, filled with memorable lines and images (on Pat Garrett: "[he was] frightened of flowers because they grew so slowly that he couldn't tell what they planned to do"), the experience of reading this brief novel is comparable to forging a narrative from a collection of faded tin-types and snippets of diaries.
Butcher’s Crossing | John Williams
The author of Library favorite Stoner, John Williams needs no introduction to many of our members. His 1965 novel became a (wholly deserving) recent international sensation when reissued by New York Review Books decades after its original publication. The success of Stoner, however, should not overshadow his 1960 Western Butcher’s Crossing. As he did in Stoner, Williams builds a fascinating story out of a simple plot and carefully hewn prose that lives on the page. Williams is an exacting craftsman and stylist, but his style never distracts, and the precise economy of his prose never drains life from the novel. William Andrews, a young man from Boston with Emerson on his mind, travels to Kansas in the 1870s seeking something in the raw, untamed nature of the frontier. What he finds is a pitiless hunt for one of the last remaining large herd of buffalo, a bloody massacre, and a brutal fight for survival. Although the novel is event-driven and often exciting and violent, Williams manages to address larger themes in this timeless Western. This is a haunting and profoundly dark book, and highly recommended. (Also available as an ebook and audiobook.)
The Difference | Charles Willeford
Charles Willeford (1919-1988) is best known for his twisted, unique take on hardboiled crime fiction, especially his novels featuring Miami detective Hoke Moseley. Willeford also wrote a Western called The Difference (published in 1971 as The Hombre from Sonora), and it seems virtually unknown even to members of his devoted cult following. The novel takes some of the trademarks of Willeford’s crime fiction—prose inspired by the hardboiled tradition, fastidious attention to detail, a deadpan sense of humor, a slippery, deceptive narrator, occasionally audacious plot twists—and moves the action from the 20th-century city to the 19th-century frontier. The result is unmistakably his work. The Difference is a raw, uneven novel, and far from the best book here. But this coming-of-age/revenge tale is recommended for Willeford devotees, and for noir enthusiasts with a taste for Western fiction.
Warlock | Oakley Hall
Oakley Hall’s 1958 masterpiece might be described as the story of a battle for order in the titular Southwestern territory town in the 1880s. Combined with Hall's enthusiastic embrace of Western archetypes—gamblers, sheriffs, rummy judges, prostitutes, gunfighters, outlaws, and low-life rustlers—this might be the kind of stuff that has been published and pulped hundreds of times over the last century. But Hall has created a stranger and more compelling book than all that. Told in sections alternating between an omniscient narrator and the diary of Warlock shopkeeper Henry Goodpasture, readers witness a revolving series of disputes and shifting loyalties, with chaos always lurking just below the precarious order of nascent frontier law. Ideas of justice, ethics, and morality become increasingly murky, and redemption proves elusive, if not impossible, as events transpire. Hall’s use of language is stunning, and his sense of humor is subtle and singular. Warlock is hardly below the radar—Pulitzer Prize finalist, successful Hollywood film with Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, republished by the New York Review, and praised by prominent writers and critics—but the Library’s copy spends far too much time sitting idly in stack 5.
True Grit | Charles Portis
In 1870s Arkansas, 14 year-old Mattie Ross leaves home to avenge her father’s robbery and murder at the hands of a laborer named Tom Chaney. Setting off into rugged Indian country in the winter, she hires Rooster Cogburn, a tough U.S. Marshal, to accompany her in the pursuit of Chaney. Their journey makes for a gripping and entertaining road narrative, recounted by Ross as an old woman decades later. Portis is rightfully known as one of America’s finest comic writers, but in addition to showcasing Portis’s comic chops, True Grit (1968) is also violent and affecting, with excellent descriptive passages and memorable characters. What really makes the book shine, though, is Ross’s voice, which will have readers hooked from the opening paragraph. Bible-thumping, fussy, stubborn, self-righteous, single-minded, seemingly void of self-doubt, she is somehow still likeable and belongs in the same league as Huck Finn when it comes to first-person American narrators. Portis has achieved an almost legendary reclusiveness and has not published a novel in over 20 years. In the meantime, his legion of readers grows and grows. A list of the writers* who admire his work and admit his influence could probably fill pages. True Grit was his most popular book, spending 22 weeks as a Times bestseller, a Book of the Month Club pick, and adapted into two successful feature films.
*The True Grit audiobook is read by Goldfinch author and Portis admirer Donna Tartt.
Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West | Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s 1985 Western seems to have been conceived as the last word on fiction of the American West. McCarthy looked into one of the darkest chapters of 19th-century frontier history—a group of scalp-hunters on the Tex-Mex borderlands known as the Glanton Gang*—and forged a terrifying, apocalyptic, hallucinatory, mad, violent American novel that is all too real and immediate and relevant. In Judge Holden he created one of the most memorable villains in all of literature. The highly stylized (and dense) prose has repeatedly drawn comparisons to Melville and Faulkner (and some not-so-flattering ones), but the cumulative effect is the author’s own. But don’t just take this librarian’s word for it: Harold Bloom has written that “no other living American novelist…has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian…it is the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” —Steven McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions
*See Notes on Blood Meridian by John Sepich (U. of Texas Press, rev. 2008) for a look at McCarthy’s sources.
The Ballad of Dingus Magee | David Markson
Author David Markson was a creative writing teacher at Brooklyn College in the 1960s when he wrote three sardonic 1960s pulp novels to “prove I can write a book of some kind.” Markson, who considered Williams Gaddis's postmodern opus The Recognitions (1955) “the great American novel of that period,” then published this Western in 1965. The one hundred-plus word subtitle of Dingus indicates the self-conscious vernacular of local color by which the book is wrought: “Being the Immortal True Saga of the Most Notorious and Desperate Bad Man of the Olden Days… Composed in the Finest Modern English as taken diligently from the Genuine Archives.” Markson heeds the traditions of old Westerns, but outlaws, sheriffs, madams, and Apaches romp a plot where the old West action twists with the embroidered language of O. Henry tales and is punchlined with the slapstick irony of Blazing Saddles (1974). The novel sold well and was soon adapted into a bomb Hollywood movie starring Frank Sinatra. Markson would later garner literary laurels with anti-fiction works Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) and This Is Not A Novel (2001).
The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard | Elmore Leonard
As an ineluctable rule of literature, the reader who picks up a work by Elmore Leonard never makes a bad choice. From the 1950s to 1970s, the famous crime writer also published many Westerns. The bulk of these short stories take place in 1880s Arizona Territory, where characters expect chaos, hope for order, and are challenged to reckon a new meaning of law and outlaw. Lawmen commit crime and outlaws commit law. Damaged old men gain comeuppance against a haunted past. Eager young men subvert gumption to beat complex and violent villains. To men, women prove a moral promise. To women, men promise a troubled frontier. The reader of Western fiction by Elmore Leonard wonders how the writer ever wrote novels, because the short tales seem to say it all.
Heart of the West | O. Henry
The short stories in this lively and droll collection portray the West as a wild frontier where men might hitch a deep fraternity. “Friendship between man and man,” says Telemachus Hicks, a hotel proprietor in Los Pinos, New Mexico, in “Telemachus, Friend,” “is an ancient historical virtue enacted in the days when men had to protect each other against lizards with eighty-foot tails and flying turtles.” But the West is also an emerging settled community, where women are empowered but misunderstood. “I’ve often heard,” continues Telemachus to the narrator, a hunter waiting for a southbound train, “about ladies stepping in and breaking up a friendship between men.” Telemachus goes on to relate the story of what transpired between him and his dear chum Paisley Fish: “Thinks I, neither homicide nor flattery nor riches nor sophistry nor drink can make trouble between me and Paisley Fish.” The pals “mined, ranched, sold patent churns, herded sheep, took photographs and other things, built wire fences, and picked prunes.” But when the sojourning ramblers enjoy the repast of the Widow Jessup, who runs an eating-house by the railroad tracks, “the first sight and hot biscuits of Mrs. Jessup appears to have inserted an oscillation into each of our bosoms.” They each vow to “accrue that widow woman as part and parcel in and to my hereditaments forever, both domestic, sociable, legal, and otherwise, until death us do part.” Composed in a ripsnorting bygone language, it ends, like all stories by O. Henry, with a great twist. —Andy McCarthy, Reference Librarian for the Milstein Division of US History, Local History, and Genealogy at New York Public Library
Horseman, Pass By | Larry McMurtry
In McMurtry’s first novel, 17 year-old Lonnie Bannon tells us the story of his family. His grandfather, Homer, is a rancher in Texas in 1954, and his occupation and honesty situate him firmly among his cowboy forebears. The West is changing again, but now it’s the modern world intruding on the rancher’s world, rather than the cowboys trying to tame the frontier. Hud, Homer’s stepson, is a good cowboy too, but he’s selfish and destructive. If any of this sounds familiar, you might recognize these characters from the movie Hud , with a screenplay adapted by McMurtry himself from his novel. As far as westerns are concerned, McMurtry will be best remembered for the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove (and deservedly so), but this is the better representation of his gifts. While the spare prose and subject matter place this firmly in the Western tradition, its post-World War II setting renders the traditions afresh. The generational clash is as brutal as any between outlaw and lawman or cowboy and Indian, though made more tragic by the family ties. For this reader, McMurtry’s storytelling wizardry works best in a more contemporary setting, where he can expose the tensions between the mythologies of an imagined past and realities of modern lives, like he did in The Last Picture Show, maybe his best novel. Horseman, Pass By, published in 1962 when McMurtry was just 26 years old, is an incredible beginning to his astonishing career.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories | Annie Proulx
Like McMurtry, Annie Proulx’s fiction is populated by people tethered to the landscape. Her early novels take place in the northeast, and feature the kind of people she knew, fisherman and farmers making their way among the craggy coast and rocky soil, like the ones featured in The Shipping News. Remarkably, Proulx found her surest footing in a place she moved to later in life, Wyoming. The stories collected in Close Range are deeply rooted in a Western tradition. They are full of sinew and grit, as harsh as a Wyoming winter. Like McMurtry, Proulx is best when the mythology of the American frontier meets the reality of the 20th-century. “The Mud Below” is the story of Diamond Felts, who forsakes his parents’ plans and abandons college to make a life for him riding bulls in the rodeo, as though he still believed the fairy tales about being a cowboy. Like the luckiest western settlers, he manages to barely scrape by in his adopted home, despite the solitude and the struggles. Mero travels west in “The Half-Skinned Steer," but not of his own volition. He left Wyoming in the 1930s for a new life in Massachusetts, desperate to escape a brutal childhood, but must return now to bury his brother. The most extraordinary story in the group is the last story, “Brokeback Mountain.” Here, two men, both raised on ranches, pick up some work tending sheep as they graze on the side of a mountain in the summer months. Proulx twists our expectations in the mostly male and very macho world, when sexual passion flares between the ranch hands and doesn’t subside when they part ways. Recognizing the power in this story, Larry McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana, adapted the screenplay that became Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain .
Those looking for the newest crop of literary westerns might want to try Philipp Meyer’s acclaimed Texas epic The Son (2013). Or perhaps you should wait for The Kid , by Ron Hansen, set to be published October 2016. He’s an author you may know from The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford . It seems that authors will continue to find ways to revisit the American West. —Patrick Rayner, Circulation/Acquisitions Assistant