A recent visit to my local public library showed me Thomas McGuane’s lately published novel Driving on the Rim on the new books shelf. The dust jacket synopsis told me that it featured a typical McGuanesque male protagonist named I.B. “Berl” Pickett, an M.D. who struggles to comically balance personal and professional considerations in a fictional Montana town. After following McGuane’s career for thirty years and reading his entire fiction and nonfiction output of roughly twenty books, I put Driving on the Rim back on the shelf. I’ve had enough.
After two decades of living in the rural West and writing about its historical and cultural aspects, I now rarely read contemporary Western writers. I’ve discovered that it’s sufficient to just live here, enjoying the slower pace of life and the vast landscape without being told by the regional literary intelligentsia what to think about it. I used to read with enjoyment the likes of McGuane, Rick Bass, Ivan Doig, and the late Edward Abbey. No more.
The so-called “New West” has undergone great changes in the last few decades. Changing demographics have shifted its politics more to the left (though the recent 2010 mid-term elections changed some of that). It has a vocal environmental movement centered in its cities and college towns, and in the pages of High Country News and a host of internet blogs.
The region has certainly produced writers during that time. The main influence on them has been Wallace Stegner (1909-1994), a prolific author of fiction and nonfiction who transcended an undeserved critical regional label, attained a national reputation, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for the novel Angle of Repose. McGuane, Abbey, and Larry McMurtry, among others, were themselves Stegner Fellows in the writer’s eponymous prestigious writing program at Stanford. The irony is that the myths of the Old West — the Hollywood West, if you will — that Stegner detested, have been replaced by New West myths found in the work of these aforementioned writers, and scores more. Western writers, either the serious, or the “pulpy” kind, have always been in the myth business.
These writers are particularly adept at misleading gullible New York editors concerning the nature of daily life as lived in the contemporary American West. The winner of this prize is Annie Proulx, whose Brokeback Mountain strained credulity as to the real lives of backcountry sheepherders, who work alone, and are typically American Basques with roots in the Spanish Pyrenees. But throw in its overarching pro-gay theme, and Tina Brown, then manning (womaning?) the editorial helm at the New Yorker –where Proulx’s story first appeared in 1997 — ate it up, as did Hollywood, of course. It was a perfect marriage of the gay agenda with a mythic icon, the American cowboy. Proulx in the course of her career has produced three volumes of “Wyoming” stories about folks who all seem to live in trailers on remote ranches, as if everybody in the Cowboy State did. One trademark of these stories is her penchant for bizarre character names (Diamond, Verl, Wacky, Fiesta), lending them a dose of caricature, as their author promotes a sort of bad Flannery O’Connor Western Gothic. A memorable line from Brokeback Mountain is an expression of cowboy stoicism: “…if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.” Well, I fixed it; I don’t read Annie Proulx anymore.
McGuane has built his regional corpus by writing the same novel over and over. As a literary modus operandi, this is nothing new. In these half dozen books (Nobody’s Angel, Keep the Change, The Cadence of Grass, among others) the basic plot is simple: an aging male protagonist (like their author, they’re getting older with each book) loses his wife through divorce, loses the ranch or loses his job, etc. These setbacks bring on drink or drugs and resulting outrageous public slapstick behavior, thus alienating family and friends. Critics seem to be tiring of this narrative line, and it’s earned the author some opprobrium, despite his gifts as a stylist. The young McGuane had been hailed as a master of ironic black comedy (Saul Bellow called him “a language star”), and as literary devices go, this has served him well and inextricably linked him to an American West in flux as a milieu. The good old days are gone. The Marlboro Man is riding into the sunset, and good riddance. McGuane’s tragedy is that after early acclaim with The Bushwhacked Piano and Ninety Two in the Shade (Bellow so taken with the former), he’s spinning his pickup truck wheels with his decades-long-now series of Montana tragicomedies.
Unlike the sepia-toned landscape itself, the Western literary scene is green, and its foremost practitioner is Rick Bass. He’s prolific. Barely in his fifties, he’s written twenty two books, both fiction and nonfiction. Like writers of the 1930s who cheapened their work by infecting it with the political controversies of the time, Bass can’t seem to write anything without injecting in subtle ways his environmental biases. To begin with, his settings (the Montana Rockies; the rural South) lend themselves to this template. His characters are many times possessed of eccentric activist qualities, Bass’s style infused with South American magical realism à la Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In novellas such as Platte River and story collections such as The Hermit’s Story they live in a cave or explore old mines in the nude. In the latter’s title story am old man and a woman crash through the ice of a dry lakebed only to discover an Edenic world beneath. Bass’s nonfiction (The Ninemile Wolves, The Lost Grizzlies, et al.) is more directly doctrinaire, of course. In “Paradise Lost,” a 2005 piece in Orion magazine, the writer states his common theme: “And only now are we beginning to accept some of the basic truths… that species extinction is rampant, perhaps unstoppable; that clearcuts are expressions of raw madness; that global warming is a reality, and that the mass of our numbers, and our relentless routine of consumption, are accelerating it…”
And there you have it, the state of contemporary “Western” letters: male menopause, a phony, weird Western Gothic , and environmental hysteria. Then again, it’s a canon little different from the national scene, which likewise suffers from “a dearth of intellectual audacity and of aesthetic passion.” That last is from “The National Letters,” an essay found in H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Second Series (1920).
I wonder what the Sage of Baltimore would make of gay sheepherders?