• On a Western Jag

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    I was brought up on Western movies. Growing up in post-war Arizona, I don't think any young kid could avoid them.We were all glued to the TV in the 50's and 60's. All the best stuff happened on TV (and in the comic books). Vietnam war, man on the moon, civil rights, peace demonstrations, late night talk shows (Alan Berg blew me away) and a million westerns played endlessly on that flickering box. And because my family could have cared less about me, I put most of my time learning about the world through the magic box (the Glass Teat, as Harlan Ellison called it).

    My grandfather, Harry Fanter, spent the winter with us. He was from Nebraska, so Arizona winters were like summertime to him. With my fathers help, Harry built a little one-room cabin out of a big parking garage we had on our one and half acre lot. It was nice and cozy with a bed, a propane tank, a table and a nice porch looking over our big backyard. He had Black Jack Pershings picture over his bed and when things got too much for me (as they did practically every day), I'd go and sleep on an army cot next to his bed. And, of course, he had a little black n' white TV which we watched all the time. And Harry was a big western fan.

    Gunsmoke, Palladin, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rebel, Bonanza, Wagon Train; you name it and we watched it, many times. And I loved the simple stories of courage, bravery and betrayal. You always knew where you stood in a TV western. They made them to the simpilist common denominator. Grandpa and I spent many hours enjoying westerns together. In fact, I can watch a western now and memories of him come flooding back. He died many years ago, but is alive in my mind especially when an old fashioned western is on.



    Funny thing is, I never enjoyed reading westerns. Even though comics and then the cheap paperbacks obsessed me from the moment I could read English. Probably due to the fact that my Dad (oh, yes, that wonderful role model) always seemed to have a copy of either Louis Lamour or Mickey Spillane in his back pocket. And I wanted no part of anything he was interested in. So, no westerns in paperback for me.

    Imagine my surprise then when I picked up a copy of William Heuman's "Heller From Texas" on a boring weeknight and found myself pulled in to a sharply written, intelligent western that impressed me so much I went out and bought half a dozen more of his books (not to mention all of the ones we had at the Iliad Bookshop where I work).

    I've always admired Gold Medal paperbacks and found the publisher's stable of authors to be very high.  But I remember them making their mark mostly with hard-boiled detective and mystery stories. After finishing several of Heuman's books (they take about 2 days to read if you stay in the saddle for long periods), I had the thought that maybe these Gold Medal westerns are written to the same hard-boiled formula as the mysteries were. And after some research, I am convinced that this is the case. Quick action, clearly defined characters in a dramatic environment; liquor, the sheriff (law) and a big, bad heavy surrounded by tough guys that the hero (usually an outsider) has to fight through to get to the secret of the town. Not the perfect hard-boiled format, but close enough. Love to actually research this fully and find out if any of the editors (are they still alive) at Gold Medal shaped the westerns this way intentionally.



    Then Heuman led to Lewis B. Patten which led to A.B. Guthrie, Jr and then on to Gordon D. Shirreffs, Richard Meade and Elmer Kelton. In the last month, I seem to have made up for missing all of these great western writers in my youth. Kelton, in particular, is an author that stands above the rest. While most of the writers I've mentioned tend to use western tropes and cliches in a variety of ways, Elmer Kelton does not. He is truly and original; thoughtful, unique characters in a plot that is drawn from their weakness and strengths as people. Insightful writing about the historical period and a wonderfully drawn background. Elmer Kelton is the first western writer I've read who also brought politics and ideas into the world of his novels. It's not for nothing that the Western Writer's of America named Kelton the greatest western writer ever.

    The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., surprised me, too. Of course, I had seen the movie many times and was expecting something much less violent and dark. The story of Boone Caudill just gets darker and darker until it seems to surface in the world of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" (another genius western). I was continually amazed at how bleak and cynical the book was. And yet, there is a philosophical argument about just that attitude in the book. As if the author is using characters to argue points he is debating himself. Scene after scene pulls you in and grips you.  I read the new Houghton Mifflin/Marriner books version in trade paperback and recommend it highly. The intro by Wallace Stegner is a marvel.



    And I've got a pile of books to go through still. Clifton Adams, more Lewis B. Patten, Ernest Haycox, William Hopson, Luke Short, Norman Zollinger. And even though I have zero space on my bookshelf, I've managed to get an separate shelf just for my paperback westerns. The covers are tremendous. I could write about them for pages and pages. Check the covers page and you'll see what I mean.

    And finally, women. Yes, the women are mostly types in these novels. But there seems to be a little bit of stretching going on at least in the books I've read so far. Lewis B. Patten's "Track of the Hunter" has a wonderful but grim plot of a late middle-aged woman and her adopted half Apache sons coping with the murder of their husband/father. They want to find out what happened and will stop at nothing. Only one example of a strong, individually minded female character slipping in to a usually all-male world.

    Oh, and the role of the stranger is an interesting one. Over and over a stranger comes into town and uncovers a secret that changes everything. Dostoevsky's "The Possessed" and Knut Hamsun's "Mysteries" deal with this kind of theme, too. It's fascinating to see it in good popular fiction. Would love to dig into this theme some more.



    I've provided scans of the book covers for y'all and as an added bonus, I decide to read aloud short sections of three of the books I enjoyed the most. Hope you find it interesting.

    Too bad my Dad didn't look at some of the other authors sharing the shelves with L'amour and Spillane. Perhaps he could have learned a little empathy and courage from reading Elmer Kelton and Lewis B. Patten.

    PS lot of good info on reading westerns on the net. Western Writer's of America is an excellent site with bios, award lists and recommendations that are good ones. Believe it or not there is still a publisher (in the UK) putting out western hardbacks. Black Horse Westerns started in 1986 and are published mostly for the British lending library market by Robert Hale, Ltd. They manage to get a new book out just about every month. Mostly modern authors re-interpreting the classic westerns, but they get a reprint in now and then. Their blog is pretty good, too.

    One of their authors is David Whitehead who has done a great service to western readers like myself by creating a superb website devoted not only to his own work, but to the western novel in general. His "Brief Overview of Western Fiction" is my bible when I go shopping for westerns.So far, there hasn't been a book he's recommended that hasn't been great. I'm particularly interested in some of the really sleazy westerns from the 70's that he mentions. And I'll certainly be including some of his own books on my reading list.
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