Westerns, like Romance novels, have a reputation for following predictable and simplistic plot formulas and as such are often shunned by those who consider the genre “low-brow”. Well, let me say, as someone who has been called a book snob more than once, that many of my favourite novels are westerns. With the recent popularity of the new movie version of True Grit, I can only hope that the Western is coming back into favour. Here are a few novels (and even a book of poetry!) that are not only some of the best Westerns you are likely to read, but some of the best books period. Many of these books are a little hard to come by - the time I write this I see that there are long waiting lists for several of these titles - and somehow that seems fitting. In the world of the western, good things don’t come easy.
Any look at the great Werstern novels should start with the book Harold Bloom called “the ultimate Western”*, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. This is a very, very violent book and should only be read by those who are prepared to face unrelenting carnage.
A great part of the American Myth revolves around the western expansion - the lawless time when the west first began to be settled - and the stories that have arisen are those of good vs. evil; the white-hatted sheriff against the evil outlaw; the innocent settlers against the savage natives. McCarthy obliterates the myth by presenting a version of the violent expansion that had no regard for good or evil at all. There is simply violence on all sides - appalling in scope and seemingly without end. The story follows an un-named young man, referred to only as “the Kid”, who at a young age has developed a taste for meaningless violence and leaves his family to travel to New Orleans and then out to Texas. Eventually the Kid falls into the gang of John Joel Glanton as the gang is hired by the Mexican government to kill Apaches. From this point the story spirals into an almost unending series of atrocities told in an almost biblical manner. What is most disturbing is that many of the events and characters in the book, including Glanton, are based on reality. Glanton’s second in command, Judge Holden, is less a man than the embodiment of an idea - Holden is like the God of War, walking the earth in the form of a man. Many readers of the book have reported that for weeks afterward Judge Holden frequented their nightmares.
In Blood Meridian, McCarthy was attempting to write a novel that could be compared with Moby Dick in its vision and scope and to a very large degree he has succeeded.
* By “ultimate western” bloom meant that “It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition.” http://www.avclub.com/articles/harold-bloom-on-blood-meridian,29214/
Like Blood Meridian, Warlock is based around true events - in this case the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral. The town of Warlock is under siege by a gang of local cowboys who bully and steal from the citizenry. What lawmen that have come up against this gang have been killed. At the end of their rope, the citizens decide to bring in a gunfighter to clean up the town. Sound familiar? The Marshal arrives with his drinking, gambling and gun-fighting friend, and the similarity between these two characters to the real life Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday is deliberate, as the story closely mimics the events that happened at Tombstone. The story unfolds true to reader’s expectations, but it doesn’t end with the famous shootout where the villainous gang is defeated - this happens only halfway through the novel. From that point on Warlock turns into a much darker and more complicated book. Having gotten a taste for vigilante justice the town now has other jobs for the Marshal to perform, such as putting down a group of miners who are protesting their working conditions. The line between good and evil is erased completely and by the novels end we see that the townspeople and its Marshal are about as bad as the gang they got rid of. In short it is a brilliant tale of the corrupting influence of power.
If the myth of the American West is that of violence and good vs. evil, then the myth of the Canadian West is that our own westward expansion was peaceful and without violence. Alberta writer Fred Stenson’s novel The Trade hints at what was a more likely case - a Canadian west fraught with conflict and tension. Centered on the time the merger between the Hudson’s Bay and the Northwest companies, Many of the main characters are ruthless and brutal men - perhaps the only men who could survive the harsh climate that always is ready to claim the weak. Stenson paints a bleak and harsh picture of the early days of western settlement, one that is very well researched and grounded in fact. Short listed for the Giller Prize and winner of the first Grant MacEwan Writer’s Award, any historical fiction lover should thoroughly enjoy this tale.
An early, experimental work by one of Canada’s literary giants, this book is a amalgam of poetry, prose and reportage. The narrative point of view is always shifting: from William Bonny himself to those who knew him, to various third parties of various points of view. This is really a book that should be read and savored by all who treasure great writing. There are certain passages where the images are so powerful that they were burned into my memory for fifteen years after my first reading, and when I read the book again it was as if only a few days had passed. I believe one sign of a great book is how it can become part of the consciousness of its readers, and everyone I know who has read this book has been similarly affected. I am not a poetry expert, but if there is a greater work of Canadian Poetry than this, I’d like to know what it is.
If you have seen and enjoyed either film versions of this story, then you are sure to love the original novel written by Charles Portis in 1968. While the plot itself is very entertaining, what makes this book so wonderful is its characters. Mattie Ross, the steel-willed fourteen-year-old girl determined to avenge her father’s murder, is a character unlike any I have come across in fiction before or since. Her stubborn willfulness is typical of any teenager from any era and her belief in moral absolutes is also typical of the very young. Annoying and admirable in almost equal measure, Mattie also possesses an intellect that makes adults seem foolish. The there is Rooster Cogburn, the Marshal Mattie employs to track down her father’s killer. A man whose morals shift to fit the situation and who has weakness for the bottle, if the Cogburn character does not seem quite so original it is perhaps because it has been copied so often in the last forty years.
Rest assured the book is better than the movie (or movies).