Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hidden Finds: Westerns

I’m so excited to see True Grit coming back to the big screen, especially as envisioned by the Coen brothers. Not because I think the movie will be good, which I do, or because I think the Coens will be able to capture what makes the book great, which I don’t, but because it brings renewed attention to one of the most underappreciated writers around, Charles Portis, and the literary possibilities of the western in general. True Grit is a fantastic book, dominated by the voice of its narrator, the elderly spinster Mattie Ross as she recounts her quest as a fourteen year old to enact retribution on her father’s killer.

“I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”

That’s the second sentence of the novel, and gives you an idea of Mattie’s hard nosed, flinty narration. It’s that, the powerful, singular vision of the narrative voice which gives Charles Portis’s novel its strength and wit as a great book. Mattie Ross is a woman of her time, of a nation which, in its time, straddled two worlds: the bitter, chaotic and violent space of the Western Frontier and the ordered, proper, and industrious America to come in the 20th century. These two are folded into one another, and, in much the same way, Mattie’s no nonsense attitude overlays the unrivalled passion and thirst she has for vengeance.

Mattie is an awesome narrator—her prim and tight tale telling is as blunt and frank a story told as any in literature—who’s laser-like focus allows for all kinds of hilarious details to unintentionally develop, like the tremendous gulf between her righteous and proper ways and the brute realities of the world, as evinced by her chosen “knight in shining armor,” the U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. Here is a man so violent he kills more criminals than he captures, so mean and ornery he can only be described as a nasty son of a bitch, back when that phrase had bite. But he’s got “true grit,” as Mattie says, and so Mattie hires him to take her into the territories to capture her father’s killer.

Despite the fact that Cogburn is an illiterate wastrel of a drunk, Mattie doesn’t blink an eye. She barely curls her lip at all she encounters along the way. See, she’s the real “true grit” of the title, and she’d give Clint Eastwood’s stony faced killer cowboys a run for their money. Ultimately, that’s why I don’t think what makes True Grit such a great, hypnotic novel will translate to the screen—much like Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the magic of the book is in the language itself.

True Grit isn’t the only western I’ve read of late. The Hawkline Monster, a novel by Richard Brautigan, recently gripped me with its irrepressible charms. Imagine if Zane Grey dropped acid and read a bunch of H.P. Lovecraft before crafting a western. Or if August Derleth fell in with William Burroughs and Louis L’Amour—that kind of thing, as filtered through the wit and lithe writing of Brautigan.This is as close as I can come to explaining the subtitle: "a Gothic Western."

I understand how screenwriters and directors fall under the sway of a powerfully written western. After all, westerns are about as old a tradition as there is in film, and the western is built into the lifeblood of American storytelling. So, when you read a truly great western, it’s natural to think of the silver screen.

Hell, as I was reading The Hawkline Monster, I too, couldn’t help but think of adapting it in some shape or form. Of course, I tend to think comics, so that’s where my head went. Only, it wouldn't just be some straightforward drawings of cowboys. Maybe if all the art was photographs of Playmobile characters. Maybe that would sufficiently translate the bizarre, fun qualities of the book. That, or a marionette show for adults—the fantastic Center For Puppetry Arts is located here in my town of Atlanta, and they’re always pushing the boundaries of puppetry and experimental theater with their productions. Maybe something along these lines could capture the story and the mood and the rollicking "messed-up-ness" of The Hawkline Monster as a novel. But the novel’s core magic is ineffable, inexplicable, and resists translation into visual mediums.

That’s not surprising, given The Hawkline Monster's author. I’ve written about Richard Brautigan before, but this novel is a bit unusual for him. First, it’s story is surprisingly linear, and second, it’s remarkably anti-autobiographical. It concerns itself with two cowboy assassins, hired by a mysterious Miss Hawkline and her lusty companion, the “Indian Princess” Magic Child, to take care of a monster in their basement. But nothing is as it seems, including this book. Approach it as a western, and the book confounds all kinds of expectations—weird science and otherworldly consciences intrude on the comfortable tropes of the genre. The heroes are neither stand-up cowboys, nor are they worn-hard rough riders—instead their more like goofy dudes who love life and just happen to kill for a living.

Approach this book as a Richard Brautigan novel, and he’s done something unlike most every other piece of writing he’s published: he’s made sure every bizarre plot element has an explanation. This one goes down easy, in other words. Which either makes this a great first book for you to check out his work, or a wonderfully unsettling experience for those familiar with his writings.

So, this month I give you two great books, both westerns, both defined by their great writing and unique vision. Maybe more writers should tackle the western—it seems its charms are underappreciated these days.

True Grit is available in a new edition from Overlook Press, which, while published in anticipation of the movie, avoids the problems of an ugly "movie cover."

I chose the above image of The Hawkline Monster even though it's not the edition I have, simply because it satisfies my need to see Brautigan's face on every book he's published. I don't believe it's in print anymore; the last edition I'm aware of is this anthology which includes the author's other novels A Confederate General in Big Sur and Dreaming of Babylon.


Colleen said...

TRUE GRIT looks amazing doesn't it? I think the cast was totally inspired - can't wait to see it. (And I have a dog named "Hondo" so that will tell you how much I love westerns.)

MarkLWilliams said...

God, those are both great books -- I need to re-read each.

Another great underappreciated western is "California Bloodstock," by Terry McDonell. It's hopelessly out of print, but an amazing slice of magical realist writing from the far west (in this case, the mad founding of California).

Sitwithabook said...

When I began teaching, an experienced teacher told me that westerns hooked reluctant male readers. Now, an experienced middle school teacher myself, I have had trouble finding a steady stream of books for my reluctant readers who have failed to be interested in a book since Gary Paulsen's "Hatchet" in fifth grade. I've looked into westerns, but Vermont is not the best source of used westerns or people to give advice about titles.

I am looking for page turning westerns. Not classics, per say, but adventures.

And I want a list. A grand list of everything people can think of, so that students will go from book to book to book until they are reading junkies for life.

Please help. This is a great site, and the western sites and lists I've seen are full of "classic" westerns that are more thoughtful than adventurous.

Sarah Stevenson said...

I hope that our site can provide some recommendations over time. We've got a few short lists here in various categories:

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Maybe our other reviewers will have further tips for you, too.