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.