Writing the West

The sparsely populated mile-high plains, bowl-shaped valleys, and jagged mountain ranges of Wyoming, Montana, and other western states inspire a particular literary shape and substance. A robust and increasingly influential literature of the West, with its own set of icons—Bret Harte, Walter van Tilburg Clark, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner—has evolved over the past century and a half.

Owen Wister’s The Virginian set the mold for the western cowboy hero (although Wister called his book a “colonial romance,” noting that “Wyoming between 1874 and 1890 was a colony as wild as was Virginia one hundred years earlier”). By the time The Virginian was published, in 1902, the type of hero Wister termed the “horseman of the plains” was extinct, and many of the legendary mining centers of the post–Civil War era were ghost towns. But the habit of romanticizing the cowboy and the vigilante style of “frontier justice” endured. The stories told in the five books below arise from this bitterly inhospitable, starkly beautiful landscape. The authors are a rugged corps of iconoclasts, trailblazers in their own right.

Warlock by Oakley Hall

If Wister is the granddaddy of western writers, Hall is his natural (and rebellious) heir. In Warlock, published in 1958 during the cold-war chill, Hall gives us a Wyatt Earp–like gunslinger who is invited to the silver-mining town of Warlock by a committee of concerned citizens to restore order as marshal. But after the fight in the Acme Corral is over, then what? Black and white don’t seem so easy to parse in the gray areas as a town expands, deals are cut, and the future of the West is shaped by the few. “Our projected state was thus gradually whittled down, to become a kind of club restricted to the decent people, the right-thinking people, the better class of citizens,” Hall writes.

Hall delivers vicious content in a deadpan tone. He prefigures Cormac McCarthy in his understanding of the essentials of the American myth—corruption and evil enabled by weakness and greed. As Thomas Pynchon put it in a 1965 review of the novel, “Warlock must face its own inescapable Horror: that what is called society, with its law and order, is as frail, as precarious, as flesh and can be snuffed out and assimilated back into the desert as easily as a corpse can.”

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Hammett’s stint as a Pinkerton agent in the tough mining town of Butte, Montana, shaped the setting and hard-boiled tone he originated in this 1929 novel, the prototype for decades of gangster novels (and films) to come. Listen to the witty rhythmic opening lines: “I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.”

Hammett’s detective, the Continental Op, has been hired by a newspaper publisher (the last honest man in town) to help root out corruption. Shortly after he arrives, the publisher is found dead in the street. The Op ponders the scene: “‘Who shot him?’ I asked. The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said: ‘Somebody with a gun.’”

The Op hangs around to find the killer and ends up—yup—in the role of the flawed antihero, taking on a depraved and violent town. And he knows it: “This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”

Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

“Late in October 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana to Calgary, Alberta to enlist in the Great War . . . ” Only two of the three Ludlow brothers return to the family ranch in Montana at war’s end. One survivor, the “good” son, becomes a senator. Tristan, the other son, has scalped German soldiers to avenge his brother’s death. Having confronted the savagery within, he defies all attempts to civilize, subjugate, or subdue him. (Guess who we root for?)

Harrison compresses fifty years into this eighty-seven-page novella, which was inspired by journals written by his wife’s great-grandfather, a Cornish immigrant who traveled with General Custer. Legends of the Fall transforms the nineteenth-century western hero into a brooding, sensitive, violent vet.

Rock Springs by Richard Ford

Ford’s finely etched collection, set mostly in Montana, focuses on rootless western men who fish, hunt, mess around with women, and try to stay financially afloat and out of trouble (without much success).

The first line of the title story sets the tone: “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa–St. Pete, where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police. I had managed to scrape with the law in Kalispell over several bad checks—which is a prison crime in Montana.”

We learn what the narrator wants to tell us, but no more. Ford interweaves fluid, realistic dialogue with the evocative silences of the laconic western male. He concludes the story with a flying leap off the page: “And I wondered, because it seemed funny, what would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?”

Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

The Red Desert of Wyoming, an empty stretch of land along the Continental Divide filled with natural marvels, shapes Proulx’s masterful stories from the bottom up. Proulx is as taken with natural detail as was her predecessor Edward Abbey, who in Desert Solitaire describes a descent into the maze: “a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you—beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.” But her version of the West, set forth in three Wyoming Story collections—Close Range (1999), which includes the remarkable love story “Brokeback Mountain,” Bad Dirt (2004), and Fine Just the Way It Is (2008)—is full of “poor, hardworking transients,” she writes. “Tough as nails and restless, going where the dollars grew.”

These are people with lowered expectations. No one has an easy go of it, from the early pioneer couples to two cowboys—“drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, tough spoken”—yearning to be together. In the final story of the third collection, “Tits-Up in a Ditch,” present-day Iraq-war vet Dakotah Lister drives through the “hammered red landscape” of Wyoming, thinking, “Every ranch . . . had lost a boy . . . boys smiling, sure in their risks, healthy, tipped out of the current of life by liquor and acceleration, rodeo smashups, bad horses, deep irrigation ditches, high trestles, tractor rollovers and ‘unloaded’ guns. Her boy, too. . . . The trip along this road was a roll call of grief.”

Jane Ciabattari‘s work has appeared on and in Bookforum, The Guardian online, the New York Times, the Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire (Canio’s Editions, 2002).