Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Modern Western Novel 101

It took a post by Ex Libris for me to realize that Library Thing had added group thingie message boards to its site. A visit to the Westerns board linked me to Allen Barra's "The New True West" article, which says "the western is more with us than ever" and claims "virtually all of the finest novels about the legendary West have been written between 1964, when Thomas Berger's Little Big Man was published, and now."

Little Big Man ranks as the best western ever written, in Barra's estimation, followed by Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.

My reading list for Modern Western Novel 101 would include Charles Portis' "True Grit" (1968); Michael Ondaatje's collection of "left-handed poems," "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" (1970); Ron Hansen's novel of the Dalton Gang, "Desperados" (1979) and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (1983), which has just been made into the most anticipated western film of the year starring Brad Pitt; Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic "Blood Meridian" (1985); Pete Dexter's elegiac twilight-of-the-god novel of Wild Bill Hickok's last days, "Deadwood" (1986); N. Scott Momaday’s "The Ancient Child," which juxtaposes the legend of a young Kiowa boy with the legend of Billy the Kid; Robert Coover's phantasmagorical "Ghost Town" (1998); Philip Kimball's sweet, sad and savage "Liar's Moon" (1999); and Bruce Olds' bracing postmodernist portrait of Doc Holliday, "Bucking the Tiger" (2001).

A second, hardly less worthy, list could be made from E.L. Doctorow's "Welcome to Hard Times," an amusingly nasty revisionist take on the pulp western; Susan Dodd's heart-rending novel of Jesse James' mother, "Mamaw" (1988); Daniel Woodrell's 1987 "Woe to Live On" (which Ang Lee made into the film "Ride With the Devil"); and David Thomson’s witty and original "Silver Light," which straddles the lines between western fiction, film and history by mingling the destinies of a real-life and movie frontiersman and which was wrongly dismissed by some critics after its 1990 publication -- including, I must now admit, myself.

I've read seven of the novels mentioned above. I know I checked Little Big Man out of the library when I was a kid, but I can't remember if I actually read it; guess I need to remedy that.

Other worthy western titles garnered from the letters to the editor section following the article:

Rest of the Earth. William H. Henderson

Giant in the Earth. Ole E. Rolvaag

Giant Joshua. Maureen Whipple

The Bad Lands. Oakley Hall

I think most of these are out of print, but the library here has all of them but the Whipple.

I was surprised no one mentioned Guy Vanderhaeghe--The Last Crossing certainly ranks as one of my favorite westerns.


  1. A pre-Western-Western that may be worth adding to your list is The Borderland by Edwin Shrake. It's set in the early days of the Republic of Texas.

  2. This reminds me that I have neglected Westerns for far too long! I've read True Grit and Little Big Man and have both the Doctorow and the Ondaatje titles on my shelf. Desperados sounds good (wonder if the author took the title from the Eagles?). Have you read any older Westerns, such as Owen Wister's The Virginian or Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage?

  3. The Doctorow and both of the Ron Hansens are good, though I did liked Desperadoes the better of the two. I hope Brad Pitt does a better job playing Jesse James than he did Achilles!

    I read The Virginian two or three months back--it was Ella's Slaves of Golconda selection; she grew up reading westerns same as I did. Many were quite harsh in its assessment (esp. Ella). I enjoyed it for the most part, though I much preferred The Ox-Bow Incident (which I read a couple weeks later). I read A LOT of Zane Grey when I was middle-school age.

    I intend to read Oakley Hall's Warlock this fall. I've heard it's excellent and I'm going to be very disappointed if I don't like it!

  4. Man, Library Thing gets more and more tempting. Message boards! Mmmm.

    I too tried "Little Big Man" when I was young, never got past the first part, and now wish to re-read. Wister, though, I don't think I ever want to see him again.

  5. I have been very neglectful of library thing. Now that I have rearranged bookcases, I am not sure what has been entered and not...a nice little mess. Oh well. I need to take a look at these message boards.

  6. I've been longing for a good western since I finished Lonesome Dove a few months back. I picked Warlock from the library shelves to start this weekend. I'll look forward to your thoughts when you finish it.


  7. Let me know what you think of it, Chrissy. When are you going to start blogging again?

  8. I'm just getting back, Susan. The bulk of my work is done, and football season starts on Saturday. It's all down hill from there.



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