A New Direction for the Western

A New Direction for the Western

Sean McCoy
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The notion that the western United States has failed to foster exceptional fiction invested in the essence of the region is an observation particular (or so it would seem) to a certain type of elder statesman of the American West, in consideration of a particular type of establishment literary art. John Williams, himself the author of the exceptional Western novel Butcher’s Crossing (an early precursor to the “anti-Western,” and predictive, in its violence and subversive plotting, of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian), poses the observation as a question in his 1961 essay “The ‘Western’: Definition of the Myth,” which appeared in The Nation: “Why has the West not produced its equivalent of New England’s Melville or Hawthorne—or, in modern times, of the South’s Faulkner or Warren?”

Williams was wrong. Plenty of great Western novels have been written, both then and in the interim. But he was also onto something. There is a dearth of great contemporary novels that deal with the most crucial themes of the West: bloody expansion, toxic machismo, immigration, atomizing individualism, and the plunder of nature and people. The region’s literature has suffered from the pollution of the dime-store romance, stick-figure protagonists, and inflated adventure narratives that Hollywood codified into the Western genre. That genre doesn’t speak to the West as a place with a distinct history but instead to the cheap ideals and popular tropes that helped Anglos seize and settle the terrain. It trafficks in cowboys and cattle drives, sheriffs and shoot-outs, vicious “Indians” and their ritual banishment. Elsewhere, the genre recycles quests for gold, escapes from the law, and heroic conquests of land, savages, and beasts. These tropes are both the region’s and our nation’s myths—tales that authorize a settler-colonial culture of rapacious extraction and terrible violence. 

Today, the West hasn’t abandoned its myths; it’s merely adapted them. Though the 1890 census declared the frontier officially closed, the notion of the frontier as an endlessly exploitable horizon has endured in our national consciousness. Cliven Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees, and his family’s fomentations of armed uprisings against federal authority, evince a contemporary version of the violent and opportunistic settler of yore. Meanwhile, our present government appears intent on institutionalizing the Bundy family’s disregard for both the public and the public’s land. Since 2016, the Trump administration has been in the process of reversing one hundred different environmental rules, eliminating national monuments, loosening restrictions on drilling for oil and gas, rescinding water pollution regulations, gutting protections for various animal species, ignoring tribal sovereignty—in general, promoting the culture of depredation that made the West so appealing to settlers in the first place. This assault is nowhere more evident than in the construction of lengthy new stretches of the border wall with Mexico, which shutter wildlife passages and decimate Native sacred sites. 

The nation may remain trapped in our history, but the contemporary Western novel appears eager to break free. A few recent entries into the genre aspire to the status of “literary Westerns,” rewriting our expectations for the tropes they inherit. This impulse is especially evident in Téa Obreht’s Inland and Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses, novels that take not just the West but representations of the region as their primary concerns. They recast the white male heroes who typically helm stories of the frontier, placing a new cohort of racially and sexually diverse characters at the center of the action. In doing so, Obreht and Pufahl honestly account for the variety of experiences, oppressions, and exploitations that shaped the West, rebuking the false promises of opportunity that have been fostered for generations by railroad barons, land speculators, Hollywood marketers, and anti-government militiamen. Rather than regurgitating old myths, they mount an exploration of who in our history has been permitted to roam the land, who has been allowed to stake a claim, and what the costs of staking such claims have been. Questions of movement and settlement are baked into the Western, but rarely do they receive the necessary scrutiny we find here, where queer characters and people of color alter the genre conventions to which readers have become accustomed, and illuminate the exclusionary culture that they give cover to.   

Halfway through Inland, Lurie, one of the novel’s protagonists, meets a writer who has ventured to the West to collect the region’s stories. The writer, a clever metafictional device, offers Lurie the opportunity to examine the traditional narratives that Obreht is eager to reimagine. After chatting a bit, the writer asks Lurie what he thinks of this vast, strange place. “Everyone [the writer] met had just about one thing to say: the land was changing fast. I supposed it was, but what struck me most was how much of it was staying the same,” Lurie explains. He shares stories about his friend George, an old Muslim man whose role in the history of the American West has been largely forgotten: as a member of a select group of Muslim American cameleers for the US Army Camel Corps, he packs freight across the Southwest. “If [George is] such a pistol,” asks the writer, “how come I never heard of him?” “Hadn’t nobody heard of Bill Cody, neither,” Lurie replies, “till someone like you wrote about him.”

Lurie’s remark reveals how Obreht thinks about which kinds of characters have come to dominate the Western. Traditionally, the genre has not made room for someone like Lurie, an orphan with a poetic sensibility, the vaguely foreign son of a Muslim father, and an outlaw whom wanted posters describe as a “small hirsute Levantine.” Neither has it made much room for the novel’s other protagonist, Nora, a hardy and independent frontierswoman, nor for the Muslim Americans like George who arrived in the Southwest in the late nineteenth century. The Western, in other words, hasn’t featured a “hirsute Levantine” hero, or a Muslim cowboy, or a rugged frontierswoman, because Western writers have always been hunting for the next Bill Cody. For too long, the genre has embraced white, masculinist archetypes that reflect the image of their makers. 

Obreht revises these archetypes through Lurie and Nora. Inland oscillates between their separate plots, which eventually converge in Amargo, a settlement in Arizona Territory where drought and the maneuverings of a local cattle baron have threatened the community’s existence. Lurie’s chapters unfold over several decades, from his embattled childhood in the eastern US to his run-ins with the law in the Gulf Coast and his subsequent escape west. His story is at heart a tale of flight: Running from his past, Lurie tags along with the US Army Camel Corps and befriends its Muslim drovers, only to set off alone through the desert to flee a determined and racist US marshal. His journey hews to a variety of Western tropes: traversing the continent, joining a band of outlaws, enacting lethal violence. But Obreht is quick to undermine these common elements: Lurie’s physical characteristics and heritage make him an outsider wherever he lands in the West, and force him to move on again and again. He is not the white bandit whom the sympathetic barman secretly harbors. Crucially, this means his flight is involuntary, without the prospect of settlement. He spends the entire book fleeing the marshal, as he is easily identified and targeted for his and his camel’s appearance. Unlike the many white homesteaders and prospectors who stampeded west in search of prosperity, Lurie doesn’t have the privilege of staying anywhere long enough to make a home. He cannot bury his murderous past beneath a new family life on a farm, like Clint Eastwood’s ex-outlaw William Munny does in Unforgiven. Lurie achieves no Western redemption, and he remains an alien who cannot lay claim to either plunder or place. 

Nora is a more straightforward recasting of her archetype: she reflects, in essence, the lone frontiersman her character is apparently crafted to invert. After her husband disappears from Amargo in search of water, and her two eldest sons vanish to supposedly pursue him, Nora finds herself charged with ensuring the survival of the remaining members of her household. She’s soon swept up in the effort to save Amargo from abandonment. If at certain moments Lurie feels emptied of his machismo, achingly empathetic and self-inquisitive, Nora is often the opposite. She rules her house with prototypically masculine discipline and undermines the fight for Amargo’s survival through her own brash behavior. But she discovers that even this hardness—fostered by the rough conditions of her existence, and beneficial to her family and homestead—is undervalued: 

She was a tough, opinionated, rangy, sweating mule of a thing, and the sum total of her life’s work was her husband of twenty years enumerating what he desired for his sons—which did not include a companion with her qualities, but did include moving to a more favorable clime to secure the affections of a person with not one-half of Nora’s merits.

The West does not embrace its men when they look like Lurie, but neither does it embrace its women, even when they become like its men. 

On the whole, Nora and Lurie are a dual reworking of staid Western tropes, allowing Obreht to undermine the genre’s thematic conventions. The men vacate the frontier, never to return with water, their fabled strength transposed onto Nora but without the fabled benefits. Meanwhile, Lurie and his band of Muslim cameleers cannot exploit the West—as the Anglo pioneers who preceded them did—precisely because they are themselves targets of exploitation by those same pioneers. Later in the novel, a pair of geologists coerces Lurie and a fellow rider into assisting with a journey to a legendary mountain of riches in the desert, but then fails to compensate them as promised. Lurie’s friend steals a gold-veined rock as payment; overnight, every outlaw in the region has heard tell of the precious stone and begins their own violent chase. It seems as if Lurie is always running from somebody.

In that same 1961 essay, Williams describes the Western’s fundamental paradigm as an “elemental conflict between the personified forces of Good and Evil, as these are variously represented by cowboy and rustler, cowboy and Indian, the marshal and the bank robber.” It’s a paradigm that lacks any basis in the West. Rather, as Williams argues, it originates in the Calvinism of the East, and produces a predictable allegorical tale in which heroes and villains do battle, good and evil are intrinsic to each, and the conquest of the former over the latter is assured. Despite her attempt to rewrite the Western, Obreht embraces this neat paradigm: the cattle baron and marshal are our villains, the cameleer and frontierswoman are our new heroes. Though she welcomes new faces into her story, the fundamental structure of the Western myth does not change, limiting her ability to fully excavate the ways in which the genre’s conventions authorize violent exploitation. 

In Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses, this allegorical battle recedes, enabling her to peer past the personified clash between good and evil so she can explore something more mundane: the ways that evil works through social and economic systems. For Pufahl, that means examining the metastasis of postwar urban and suburban society in the 1950s American West. In the book’s Las Vegas and Southern California, evil does not hide behind a badge or beneath a wide-brimmed hat. It is not easily discernible, residing instead in the texture of a new cultural consensus and its architecture: the bloom of cloned suburban neighborhoods, the sprouting of crass commercial centers, and the ever-growing network of interstate highways that connects (and occasionally severs) them all. Under Pufahl’s care, these settings restructure our expectations for Western landscapes: they are neither beckoning horizons nor threatening expanses of desert. 

Pufahl tells two entwined love stories that are also about two distinct types of gambling. Both play out against the backdrop of rampant housing development and nuclear weapons testing. A young woman named Muriel sets the novel in motion when she arrives in San Diego from Kansas. She’s starting life over with her new husband, Lee, who is himself recently returned from the Korean War and hungry for a home of his own—his slice of the American dream. Lee’s brother Julius intends to join them after he is thrown out of the army. Instead, he heads for Vegas, where he picks up a shift at a casino, falls in love with a man named Henry, and watches bombs blow mushroom clouds above the surrounding desert. His love remains a secret, just like Muriel’s gradual affection for the San Diego racetrack, where she bets on the horses—symbols of risk as much as of opportunity. 

Here we get a thick sense of place and history, the beginnings of a contemporary American West where the renewed dream of plenty is also a dream of exclusion, a version of democracy as consumerist fantasy that again engenders movement but fails to offer the freedom of settlement. “You don’t have to believe in nothing to run a casino, not even democracy.… You can let in whoever you want, throw out whoever you want,” a stranger in a bar tells Julius. The casino becomes a metaphor for postwar American society, where there are no public places that accept Julius and Henry. They are forced to meet in secret, in motels, what Wallace Stegner called “the principal invention of Western American culture”—spaces that cater to the outsider, to the transient, to the visitor rather than the local. Julius is careful to make sure that he and Henry take different paths to their room, where they can share a reprieve from the world until morning, denied the security of anything like a home in this society. Like Lurie, they remain a pair of outcasts.

Simultaneously, in San Diego, the burgeoning urban environment and its sprawling suburban communities propel Lee and Muriel toward homeownership. Lee wants a house, and Muriel’s racetrack winnings just might be the key. Yet those earnings are a secret that drives her and her husband apart: Muriel hopes to sate Lee’s desire for land, but she must lie about the origin of her wealth. As a result, Muriel befriends her neighbor Sandra, the lone local remaining in the sea of newcomers, who can recall when the valley was still a rural landscape full of olive trees. “All these cowboys,” Sandra says of the recent arrivals seeking to inherit the legacy of prior settlers, “but this whole place will be a cul-de-sac by next year.” They think they are pioneers, but they live blinkered lives hemmed in by an impoverished cultural imagination, wards of a nation happy to spend resources fine-tuning its war machine rather than creating advancements that nurture the lives of its citizens. 

“Maybe they came out west only to claim a past denied to them, and not, after all, a future free from such notions,” the narrator says of Muriel, Lee, and Julius. Theirs is a story shared by millions of people who left rural homes in search of something new in the country’s growing cities, only to find themselves at horse races, gambling halls, and motels: an indication of how fraught the dream of the new became for migrants who could not find themselves reflected in the heroes of classic television Westerns. Vegas and San Diego, Pufahl suggests, were designed for a wave of Anglo arrivals who fit the limited vision of the American culture industry, which erased women, queerness, and people of color from public life. The tragedy of Muriel and Julius is that they are willing victims of that culture industry. Rather than imagining a future in which they can belong, they desire a vision that rejects them. 

Ironically, the harder they search for a home in a world that disregards their lives, the harder it is for them to find one. They are forever seeking out a space of belonging, and forever unable to settle. For Muriel and Julius, as for Lurie and Nora, the cruel impossibility of achieving those prospects makes plain the exclusivity of the Western myth. Today, that exclusivity should no longer surprise us. And yet as the region faces new and old threats—environmental degradation and climate change foremost among them—many of us remain entranced, eager participants in our inherited culture of excess and extraction. If the typical Western aspires to celebrate the region’s conquest while disregarding the history of inequality and exploitation it entailed, new Westerns like Obreht’s and Pufahl’s are determined to stare that history square in the face, illuminating those who have been left on the margins. It’s hard to celebrate the fruits of plunder without masking the people and places that have been plundered, after all. 

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