Andrew Hilleman's thrilling western, World, Chase Me Down, re- imagines the life of a turn-of-the-20th-century kidnapper who committed the first “crime of the century.” Hilleman picks 10 great western novels you've probably never read.
In 1903, not long before her death, Calamity Jane famously said “Leave me alone and let me go to hell by my own route.”
I often feel the same when it comes to book recommendations: I like to discover them on my own and am strangely guarded when asked about what I’ve enjoyed lately. There’s nothing like wandering aimlessly through a bookstore, picking up a copy of a novel you’ve never heard of, falling in love on the first page, and sprinting up to the counter while turning to page two. Whenever I’m recommended a novel by a friend, it feels a little bit like a hand-me-down sweater. Conversely, whenever someone asks me what I’ve been reading, I feel like I’m trying to sell a beige Buick Skylark in a strip mall car lot.
I really need to get over such silliness. If you’re reading this list, you’re most likely a Western fan already and familiar with classics like Blood Meridian, Lonesome Dove, and True Grit. Not to discount those titles—they’re well known for a reason. But there are also a bevy of other outstanding works of Western fiction that deserve a place on your shelf.
So here I am getting over my strange peccadillo. Or, at least, half of it. I offer a list of my favorite Western novels that are off the beaten track. Some of them are by authors you might know, but fly under the radar even to their fans. Some were once wildly popular but have faded from memory. Others just plain never got the recognition they deserve. Regardless of the reason, each of these works is a masterpiece well worth your time.
Oh, and Calamity Jane makes an appearance in number 6.
10. The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie Jr.
Once considered a classic, this Western epic deserves to be on the mantle with the best of Larry McMurtry. In my humble opinion, it beats Lonesome Dove all to hell. It’s Guthrie’s debut about three frontiersmen traveling west as fur trappers in the 1830s. These cowboys aren’t your stereotypical gunslingers—they’re hard-working roughnecks of the truest sort and young Boone Caudill reminds me of Robert Redford’s mountain man, Jeremiah Johnson. The writing is so vivid and well-researched it often leaves me panting. While Guthrie won the Pulitzer for his follow-up, The Way West, his first offering is a monument and all-time great Western.
9. Welcome to Hard Times by E. L. Doctorow
Another debut by a literary heavyweight. Many have at least heard of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate. But, even among those folks, very few would think the man got his start with cowboys. The only reason this one isn’t ranked higher on my list is that it relies on boilerplate formula too often. The “Bad Man from Bodie” is a formulaic creation as far as outlaws go, but the prose with which Doctorow constructs him and his dark humor keep the character and the story fresh despite its familiar conventions. Read the first two pages and you’ll see the sure-fire signs of how Doctorow became a master stylist.
Wait, you say. I know this novel! This isn’t off-the-radar! Maybe so. It’s by far the most contemporary offering on this list, having been published in 2011 to wide acclaim, which may be the reason it rings a bell. But how many people have actually read this novel? I’ve gone through it four times, myself. That’s not bragging—it’s just that damned good. The story is so spectacular, the humor so amazingly coarse, the character development so rich, that anything short of multiple months atop the bestseller list is a crime. That might change once the movie is released in a couple years.
7. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
The masterstroke of this novel is that it’s only getting started where most Western novels end: with a climatic moment of violence as three men are lynched outside of a small Nevada town. What happens after is the heart of the story: an exploration of mob rule that still echoes harshly for us even today. Especially today. The opening line is one of the best I’ve ever read. Not to mention Art Croft is one of the most overlooked narrators in all of literature. His first-person voice is pitch perfect.
6. Deadwood by Pete Dexter
Forget the HBO show of the same name. No, really, forget it. I’ve tried to despite loving it, mainly because of the unfinished ending after it was cancelled following season three. This novel takes place in the same famous South Dakota town and features many of the same historical players including Wild Bill, Charlie Utter, and my personal favorite Calamity Jane. But that’s where the similarities stop. Dexter’s novel was published in 1986, so it’s got dibs anyway. Plus, it’s just a lot damn better and has an actual ending to boot! It’s also as bizarre as a Western novel gets. And that’s a good thing.
5. The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout
While slim and sparse, this novel is anything but threadbare while evoking the final days of an old gunslinger who’s hanging onto life by its last thread. John Brooks is an aging assassin whose days are running short after he’s diagnosed with cancer. All he wants is to die in peace, but once word spreads around town that the famous man is near death, a plethora of fame-seekers come to see him on the way out the door. Some just want to shake his hand once, others want to beat the cancer to the punch. Side note: John Wayne’s last starring role as Brooks might be his very best.
4. The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey
Dusty trails full of tumbleweeds—meet the superhighways full of cars. Goodbye, chestnut mare. Hello, red Cadillac. The Old West is disappearing to modern society in this novel of friendship that turns from jailbreak to manhunt in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jack Burns fights against the coming future despite knowing the score. The prose reads like early Cormac McCarthy. The dialogue makes me drool. If you like this one, seek out the even lesser-known film adaptation Lonely Are the Brave.
If you aren’t already aware of Proulx’s first collection of Wyoming stories, Close Range, then start there. But this second assembly is just as sharp and painful and brilliantly drawn. While there aren’t as many singular hits as there are in Close Range, these stories together are ultimately superior by the sheer fact that there isn’t a dud among them. If Brokeback Mountain emptied you of nearly all breath, "The Trickle Down Effect" in this collection will finish the job.
2. Desperadoes by Ron Hansen
Most will recognize Hansen for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That’s fine by me, because that novel is a classic. But to have enjoyed that novel and not have read Desperadoes is a serious misstep. The language in Hansen’s portrait of an aging Emmett Dalton is astounding. His prose rivals Nabokov in this tour de force. But what I love most about this novel is that in a genre where conscious reflection is so often absent in favor of empty gun play, Hansen delivers in spades. The most powerful scenes are often the quietest ones. Poignant and haunting, this story rises above genre to the very top of our literature.
1. Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry
It’s nearly impossible to have a top-10 Western list of any kind without including the ultimate master of the genre. While I gave Mr. McMurtry a not-so-slight jab in my comparative praise of The Big Sky to his epic Lonesome Dove, the man has no parallel when it comes to full-blooded Western genius. What else can be said of this titan that hasn’t already? Certainly nothing from the likes of me. But I will say this: there’s something about the freshness and urgency of a debut novel that can’t be replicated by what follows no matter how talented the author. This is true of McMurtry as well. I was spellbound by his prose. No, really—it put me in a trance and I awoke sixty pages later wondering what the hell just happened to me. It doesn’t hurt that Paul Newman knocked the role of Hud into the stratosphere. Every line is poetry down and dirty in the mud, right where it belongs.