In his standout first story collection, Dog Run Moon, Callan Wink stakes his bold claim to Big Sky literary territory. Wink, who is also a fly-fishing guide in Montana, picks his 10 favorite books set in the American West.
When I think of the literature of the American West one hallmark of the genre, as I see it, is the way characters are forced to deal with a powerful, often hostile, landscape. In many cases this basic struggle is what drives the narrative or allows the characters to fully realize themselves. It seems like a simple thing—human response to environment. However, the particular realities of this environment—existing as it does, often largely separate from the trappings of humanity—is at the very core of what separates a Western from a New York novel.
I would argue that in the majority of all good writing about the West there is something elemental—the narrative of survival most basic. For instance, in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, The Kid and Judge are locked in a long running battle in which existential questions about the nature of good and evil are posed, and yet, while this is occurring, the desert is doing its best to kill them both. In James Welch’s Winter in the Blood the protagonist’s father, a Native American man that "made the white men" laugh, gets drunk and freezes to death in a ditch on his way home. In Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, the writer goes for a hike and nearly drowns when a flash flood strands him in a narrow canyon. In these and many more examples the character’s personal struggles exist squarely within the larger framework of the natural world. There is an equalizing factor at play here. The realities of a harsh environment put human suffering and triumph in perspective—a small point plotted on the infinitely larger map of the land.
I sometimes consider it this way:
A character in a New York novel might look at the city, the press of diverse humanity, the huge buildings, the hum of activity, and feel that his/her life is insignificant or at the very least, a exceedingly small cog in the greater machine of human endeavors.
A character in a Western novel looks out at a terrifyingly empty prairie, an expanse of jagged mountains, the infinite wash of stars in an unpolluted night sky, and feels not so much that his/her life is insignificant but that humanity as a whole has vastly overestimated its own importance to the universe.
The characters in a Western are fairly regular forced to acknowledge the real scale of the world and their place in the cosmos, and I find that refreshing. Here are 10 good ones.
1. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy - Disparaging Cormac McCarthy seems somewhat fashionable these days amongst urbane MFA and lit-crit intelligentsia but this novel still knocks me over every time I read it. In fact, I have read it at least once a year for the past ten or so and it is still as unrelentingly grim and powerful as the first time I picked it up. Comparisons to Moby-Dick are common and, I think, justified.
2. Winter in the Blood by James Welch - A slim, beautifully poetic novel about a Native American man grappling both with the harsh realities of reservation life and the weight of his ancestral legacy. Welch’s Western landscape is gritty, at times bleak, far removed from the postcard world of Old Faithful and drive-by tourism.
3. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje - A wildly inventive work, unlike any book I’ve ever read. It’s a collage of imagined interviews, poems, prose and even photos, fragments that when pasted together, form a strange and beautiful exploration of one of the most enduring mythic figures of the American West.
4. "Legends of the Fall" by Jim Harrison - With a resonance that far exceeds its 80-some pages, "Legends of the Fall" reads like an epic. With pitch perfect sentences Harrison weaves a tale of revenge, war, and love set against the backdrop of Montana at the turn of the century.
5. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey - I could have compiled another completely separate list of non-fiction books concerning the West, but that is a separate project. I couldn’t however, leave this one out. This is Abbey’s elegiac account of his seasons as a ranger in the red rock desert near Moab, Utah. It is a love song in praise of a harsh land and full of Abbey’s awesomely cranky, uncompromising views on environmental protection.
6. The Son by Philipp Meyer - A big, intricately woven multi-generational Texas novel. The Son follows a family from the early 1800s to nearly the present day. All the major themes are present, the brutality of the frontier days serving as a foundation for the boom-time oil economy. Large in scope, the novel also manages to retain a sharp enough focus on the individuals that make up what we consider to be history.
7. Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley - A refreshing voice in Western literature, McConigley’s stories explore what exactly it means to be the “wrong kind of Indian” in Wyoming. These characters subvert our expectations and give us a new way to look at place, even one as saturated with myth as the American West. Funny, poignant, and incredibly smart.
8. Rock Springs by Richard Ford - A long way from Ford’s current suburban real estate agent milieu. In this early collection he turns his straight delivery and clear-eyed observations on the hardscrabble parts of Wyoming and Montana. I of course love Frank Bascombe as much as anyone but rereading this book makes me wish Ford would focus his authorial attention west of the Mississippi more often.
9. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - A near-perfect novel. Set in the haunting rain-soaked Northwest, Robinson’s characters are dogged by loss, encroaching transience and the siren call of the cold mountain lake that exists at the center of the narrative.
10. Close Range by Annie Proulx - The stories in Close Range capture the raw emptiness of Wyoming, a state with far more pronghorn than people. The characters in Close Range are cowboys, bar fighters, ranchers shrewdly imagined and closely observed. The now classic "Brokeback Mountain" alone is worth the price of admission here.