Good Reading : October 2008
OCTOBER 2008 ı goodreading 21 categorical western. It established the character archetypes and incidents of western myth: themes of good and evil, love and justice, the cowboy hero and the journey into untamed territory. Like many others it takes its inspiration from true events and real people.You can read it as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org). The first major novelist was Zane Grey, best known for Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). It’s set in the Utah borderlands, and describes a conflict between gentiles and religious zealots. There’s a strong, passionate, Mormon- born woman, her hard-working riders and a nasty band of Mormons led by a cruel elder. Enter Lassiter, a lone gunman searching for vengeance for the death of his sister. He’s the mould from which all the silent gunslingers of later fiction were cast – and Jane is torn between the faith of her father and the love of a dangerous man.There’s a horse chase, a hidden valley, a silver strike, and a major theme of redemption and renewal. Unfortunately, the prose is as purple as the sage-slopes. It’s slow, overly descriptive and old-fashioned. Riders is interesting as an historical curio, but not much else – you’d do better to watch one of the many movie versions. According to his website, Grey became one of the first millionaire authors, and his prolific output – 90 books – the model for pulp writers for decades. Max Brand was the next major western writer. Brand was the pen name of Frederick Faust, a writer who came to prominence in the 1920s. Go into any second-hand bookshop and you’ll find plenty of his books: he wrote over 300 western novels and stories during his lifetime, many of which are still in print. The New York Times said ‘Brand practises his art to something like perfection.’ I think after two or three they start to blend into each other, but he’s still an essential influence on the genre.Try Hondo. One surprise from the classic era is L Ron Hubbard. As well as science fiction, fantasy and adventure, Hubbard wrote many western stories during the so- called golden age of pulp fiction, and one of them, Branded Outlaw , has just been republished – with plans for more in coming years. Be warned.The best thing about it is that it is short. Wester ns – like crime novels – are often very moral.Whether the hero represents the law or the other side, there’s always a strong code of behaviour.When it is broken, here’s trouble. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s 1940 ovel The Ox-Bow Incident about a posse that lynches he wrong men. It’s all about ght and wrong, the danger of mob justice, and what can go wrong when law and order are abandoned. It’s worth reading as an antidote to the individualism of most contemporary westerns. A B Guthrie Jr’s novels are not cowboy stories, but they are recognised as classics of frontier literature, set during the early westward expansion prior to the Civil War. The Big Sky is about the Rocky Mountain fur trade and the solitary mountain men who lived in the wilderness as trappers, traders, guides and explorers. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for The Way West. Guthrie also wrote the screenplay for Shane, based on the novel by Jack Schaefer (1949). Schaefer’s black-clad stranger is another enigmatic loner with a dark past – like Lassiter or Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. He’s a solitary anderer, a man comfortable with iolence, but only as a last resort. chaefer wrote many other novels, nd his Monte Walsh (1963) is onsidered the definitive life of a owboy and the ultimate book about men and horses. Another novel made into a well- known film is Alan Le May’s The Searchers, set in the wilds of Texas in the years following the Civil War, when Comanche Indians raided the remote settlements, and families relied on the Texas Rangers to keep them safe.The John Ford film is a classic, and the book is well worth reading. According to his website, Louis L’Amour wrote 89 novels in his lifetime, all of which are still in print. L’Amour wrote for the pulp magazines in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was his breakthrough with publisher Bantam that took him to a new level. He was contracted to produce two, then three books a year, which he did from 1958 until his death in 1988. His best known series is the ‘Sackett’ novels. Such was his dominance that his books are still found in most large bookstores today. Another writer who emerged during the pulp era is Elmore Leonard. Although he is better known today for crime novels, Leonard started with westerns, first with short stories, and then short novels. ‘Three-Ten to Yuma’ was an early story, and he wrote more than a dozen full-length westerns, which are now considered classics. Of the novels, check out Valdez is Coming or Hombre. His Complete Western Stories is also essential. In the 1950s the western was at its peak – dominating fiction and film screens – and also the new medium of television. But with this saturation, the genre began to play out, and writers started looking for new ways to invigorate their stories. The revisionist westerns began to emerge, abandoning the romanticism of traditional stories in favour of a gritty realism. They are often violent, cynical and dark, yet they brought new life to the genre – especially for the previously minor characters of women and Native Americans. If you just want an adventure that will keep you turning the pages for a few hours, it’s time for the pulps – Max Brand or Louis L’Amour.