Published on 21st April 2011
One of the more idiosyncratic aspects of public library layout is the corralling of 'Wild West' novels into their own distinct section...or should that be 'reservation'. Whether this is a form of literary apartheid against genre fiction or a mere reflection of borrower demand is moot (I strongly suspect the latter rather than the former). If you have been unable to take the Western seriously since the infamous 'campfire' scene in Blazing Saddles, here are four literary masterpieces that will restore your faith in the genre.
Give them a shot!
True Grit by Charles Portis (1968)
Described by Roald Dahl on its publication as 'perfect', True Grit is flawless. The story of Mattie Ross's quest for justice for the murder of her father superbly balances humour, action, and pathos. The book also boasts the character of Marshal Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn who stakes his place amongst Falstaff and Flashy in literature's gallery of great rogues. The book is easily superior to its two fine film adaptations. Portis's style is unfussy and deceptively simple. Is there a more pithy and heartbreaking summation of the mortal condition in modern literature than: 'Time just gets away from us'?
Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
One of the most unremittingly violent novels ever published, Blood Meridian is already regarded as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. The story follows a group of scalphunters through the Texas/Mexico borderlands in the mid-nineteenth century as they kill everything - men, women, and children - in their path. Blood Meridian is utterly amoral - McCarthy has no interest in judging his characters or their actions - yet is written with the intensity of a Holy Roller. Blood Meridian is unlike any other novel you'll ever read. Once read, never forgotten.
Butcher's Crossing by John Williams (1960)
Everybody has one book that they are evangelical about. Mine is Butcher's Crossing. The story of Harvard student William Andrews, who, inspired by the Romantic writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, decides to forsake his studies in search of a more fulfilling existence at the American Frontier. Andrews travels to the town of Butcher's Crossing, Kansas where he joins a buffalo-hunting expedition headed for the Colarado Rockies. Andrews quickly finds to his physical and spiritual cost that the natural world is 'red in tooth and claw' and returns to Butcher's Crossing a shell of a man. John Williams is an under-appreciated writer this side of the Atlantic but Butcher's Crossing is one of the true gems of American fiction.
Warlock by Oakley Hall (1958)
Yet another American master stylist, Oakley Hall is largely ignored in Europe. Warlock was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1958 and concerns a series of events in a town of the same name (loosely based on Tombstone, Arizona) in the 1880s. The novel draws upon mythic events and figures in American History (the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Johnson County War, Wyatt Earp) to produce a portrait of a society teetering on the brink of chaos and savagery. Available through the Borrow Books scheme.