America's great cowboy epic consists of a hundred thousand simulacra (cast in forms ranging from novels and movies to model kits and lunch boxes) of an imaginary original. At that primal point where other cultures find their Ramayana or Iliad or Le Morte d'Arthur, we make do with rumors and fabrications, replicas of wanted posters and tintypes of miners' shacks, Owen Wister and Zane Grey, and the deathless ideogram of a man on a horse crossing an empty space. Because of this void, the epic can always be written for the first time, the pieces finally put definitively together, even if only at the bitter end, or, indeed, long past the end. If the western died some time ago, that death was only a way station in this longer cycle of unappeasable striving after the Total Western, whether it materializes
as Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Gilbert Sorrentino's Gold Fools, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, or the HBO series Deadwood.

Oakley Hall's large and relentless Warlock got there ahead of the others, back in 1958, when cowboys were still thriving on movie screens and on TV. Ostensibly a saga of the struggle for law and order in the anarchic mining town of Warlock (located "beneath a metallic sky" somewhere between the Bucksaw range and the "distant peaks of the Dinosaurs"), the novel seems designed as a western to end all westerns, to run the genre itself into the dust of that archetypal main street down which all gunslingers must stride for their final showdown. Warlock's moods swing unpredictably from near-parodic melodrama to apocalyptic comedy. Yet this antiwestern is also a true western to the core, holding tight to the laws of the genre even when the world it depicts—along with the novel itself—seems to be collapsing. (Hall, a veteran novelist with more than twenty books to his credit, did, after all, recieve an award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame.) The archetypal characters that dominate the book's large cast—gunfighter, gambler, reformed outlaw, degenerate rustler, vengeful whore (the perfectly named Kate Dollar), and prairie Madonna (Jessie, the Angel of the Miners)—feel not like conventional stick figures but like individuals in various stages of desperation doing the best they can with the limited choice of roles their circumstances allow them.

So successfully does Warlock enact the necessary moves of the classic western that it was itself turned almost immediately into a very effective movie (directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark) which, though it drops significant chunks of Hall's convoluted narrative (not to mention his ironic layering of contradictory viewpoints), is still remarkable for its elaborate and unpredictable plotting. Even this truncated and considerably softened cinematic form gets across quite a bit of what is most disturbing about Hall's novel gets through: his claustrophobic vision of history as a series of constantly mutating factional disputes that periodically erupt in violence but are never really resolved except by annihilation.

The novel is no epic of the wide-open spaces. Devoid of intercontinental railroads and cattle drives, it settles into the various crannies—the hotel, the gambling casino, the jail—from which Warlock's alternately numbed and impassioned citizens watch a series of internecine struggles play out. Out beyond town are roads where bandits hold up stagecoaches, mines where the workers are "continually being broken and crushed in rock falls," a canyon where massacres occur and where the bodies are consigned to permanent oblivion, and a ranch that is home to anarchic cowboys who periodically ride into Warlock to shoot the place up. The hiring of a celebrated gunslinger—Clay Blaisedell, with his gold-handled Colts, an enigmatic character already half-legendary thanks to the efforts of a burgeoning dime-fiction industry—to defend the town against the cowboys initiates a series of violent confrontations and brutal reversals of loyalty that at each turn promise the town a redemption that never quite arrives.

It's the kind of town where men are given to saying things like, "I'm going out and drink some of the meanness out of me," or, "Never heard a man make such a fuss over getting shot." The desultory dialogue that fills the long stretches of waiting between sudden bursts of violence plays a choral role in this novel, which at times feels like some long and strange stage play. The townsfolk exchange bits of hapless wisdom and keep an eye out for outriders and back-shooters: "There is no reason to sit in here and give ourselves the nerves." While waiting for the next blow to fall, they drift into mesmerized abstraction: "He watched the thin slants of sun that fell in through the louvre doors, destroyed, each time a man entered or departed, in a confusion of shifting, jumbled light and shadow as the doors swung and reswung in decreasing arcs."

Warlock lives by its language, which sustains a through-line of pulp narration and a heightened version of B-western repartee ("You are like a hellfire-and-damnation preacher gone loco on bad whiskey") while weaving through it a swirl of feverish monologues, ironic side commentaries, and sudden sweeping glimpses of a longer view. The town's bedraggled intellectual class—a sardonic shopkeeper, a laudanum-addicted doctor, a drunken judge—watch more or less helplessly as more-active players enact the pursuit of honor and glory that inevitably becomes a dance of death. It seems part of the novel's scheme that it should push things a little too far, let events replay themselves again and again in slight and sometimes farcical variations, until the notion of historic progression is overwhelmed by a sense of deathly monotony. Even the characters come to feel that the story has gone on too long, as when Tom Morgan, the pimp and gambler who is something of the evil twin of the heroic gunslinger Blaisedell, approaches the end of his narrative trajectory: "He was tired of it all, he told himself. . . . He did not care to see how it would all come out. Nothing ever ended anyway."

In the classic western, everything comes to an end, but only that it may be reborn in an improved (even if less romantic) form as our own law-abiding civilization. Warlock posits a world where things move forward blindly and violently toward no easily defined goal. We wake as if from a trance to realize we have been reading the history of a ghost town.

Geoffrey O'Brien's most recent books are Sonata for Jukebox (Counterpoint, 2004) and Red Sky Café (Salt, 2005).