Saturday, September 20, 2014

Willard Wyman, Blue Heaven

Can’t say how many times I have anticipated the opening of a review with the words, “This is really an unusual book.” For all the predictable conventions of storytelling, I am still often surprised by the unexpected turns a writer’s story takes. I don’t mean turns of plot, because we expect that in a novel. They are, in fact, a convention of the form. A novel would not be a novel without them.

What I mean is the presence or absence of conventions so out of the ordinary and unusual, you feel like your GPS has purposely taken you someplace you never intended to go, and could not find on your own if you tried. This happened to me with this novel.

Blue Heaven is a prequel, preceding in time Wyman’s earlier High Country (reviewed here a while ago). It introduces in its later chapters a character who is at the center of High Country, and is the link between them. Blue Heaven takes place during the 1910s to 1940s. High Country unfolds in the years that followed.

While Blue Heaven is set in the Swan range north of Missoula in Montana, High Country follows its characters southward to California’s High Sierras. Both novels are about wilderness packers and the mystique of being in the mountains, especially at high elevations, over passes, and along watersheds in hard to access back country.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

William Kittredge, ed., The Portable Western Reader (1997)

Editor William Kittredge has done a remarkable job of bringing together this great collection of Western writers representing a vast swath of terrain, covering prairie, mountains, desert, and Pacific Rim. At 600 pages, his book is an introduction to over 70 writers from the journals of Lewis and Clark and the collectors of Native American chants and tales to the writers of late 20th century fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Some are well known and easily associated with the West: Wallace Stegner, A. B. Guthrie, Louise Erdrich, John Steinbeck, Edward Abbey, Maxine Hong Kingston, Raymond Carver, Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey. Many are lesser known and deserving of a wider audience, such as James Galvin, Adrian Louis, and Linda Hogan. As someone less familiar with the poetry inspired by the region, I appreciated selections from a wide range of poets, including Montana poet Richard Hugo.

Describing the experience of reading this book is like trying to sum up a year traveling in another country. There are several familiar works: Wallace Stegner’s great story “Carrion Spring,” set on the northern plains during the spring thaw after a horrific winter kill and the opening of Ivan Doig’s Montana memoir This House of Sky.

Plus Terry Tempest Williams’ chilling essay on the rising incidence of breast cancer in her family after above-ground nuclear testing in 1950s Nevada,  childhood memories of homesteading in the Nebraska Panhandle, from Mari Sandoz’ book about her father, Old Jules, and a discourse on water from Gretel Ehrlich’s essays about ranching in Wyoming, The Silence of Open Spaces.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Broncho Billy and the School Mistress (1912)

Broncho Billy Anderson
Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (1880-1971) was the first great cowboy star. A vaudeville actor in New York when he appeared in Thomas Edison’s Great Train Robbery in 1903, he was so taken by the enthusiastic reception of this short film that he decided to make a career of filmmaking.

By the end of the decade, he was a partner in Essanay Pictures and had appeared in 82 films. The company was based in Chicago, and Anderson, inspired to make cowboy movies, roamed the West with cast and crew cranking out 15-minute films at a rate of one a week for several years.

Anderson understood the importance of having a continuing character, and he bought a story by Peter B. Kyne in Saturday Evening Post, which featured a character called Broncho Billy. Reportedly unable to find an actor for the part, he played the role himself and the series began with “Broncho Billy’s Redemption” (1910). From then on, he was billed as Broncho Billy Anderson, appearing in a series of 144 films during a period that ended in 1915 when he left Essanay.

Anderson produced two more westerns, Shootin’ Mad (1918) and The Son-of-a-Gun (1919), after which his movie career rapidly ended. The introduction of feature-length films had made the old one- and two-reelers outdated. Film historian Jon Tuska argues that the new sophistication of the 1920s also altered what audiences wanted to see.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Stormy sky
While I complained in last Sunday’s post about a lack of poetry for guidance and companionship on this journey of mine, I mention two poets today who have shown up, not dense with forced left-brained cleverness and demanding of me an intellect I do not or cannot lay claim to. Walt Whitman is one; the other is William Stafford, whose last published collection in 1993 is aptly called The Darkness Around Us Is Deep.

Both poets owe their identity in part to their roles as noncombatants in wartime. Whitman, an anti-slavery Northerner, worked as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals. Stafford, a pacifist, was a conscientious objector during World War II. As I read their poems, each shows what it is to be in touch with what is human in them, and they generously invite the reader to do the same.

That humanity finds expression in what I’ve come to understand as a mystery that reveals itself where Scripture, “holy texts,” or whatever you want to call them, converge with poetry.  Both find at the core of being human a condition of woundedness—a suffering that takes many forms, physical and psychological, and cannot be escaped despite a tireless pursuit of happiness.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

James Wood, How Fiction Works

Some readers here will know James Wood as a book reviewer (he would say critic, I suppose), at The New Yorker. Published in 2008, this book suggests by its title that it’s a how-to manual for writers, but it’s better described as a what-to-notice for readers.

Wood covers a half dozen or so topics: narration, point of view, detail, character, and realism. In his preface, he states that his argument is that fiction is both “artifice and verisimilitude.” In other words, it draws on a store of conventions and fakery to create an illusion of reality.

Detail. This assertion won’t come as a surprise to many readers or writers. What’s interesting about Wood’s argument are the examples he uses, starting with Flaubert, whom he credits with virtually inventing the modern novel, with its eye for concrete detail. Whether in literary or genre fiction, the prominence given to visual, audio, and other sensory images becomes suddenly obvious after Wood points it out. You see that it is part of the artifice.

Gustav Flaubert
Narration. More complex is the matter of narration. Wood argues that all narration is unreliable, and third-person more so than first-person. To demonstrate this last assertion, he takes apart a paragraph from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew. There he finds a supposedly unbiased and neutral narrator using a word betraying an attitude that Maisie would not herself possess.

It’s a surprising revelation when you realize how writers do this all the time, blurring the line between the storyteller and the character—sometimes for a clever sleight-of-hand effect, sometimes from lack of narrative precision.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ed Gorman, Riders on the Storm

Ed Gorman’s new Sam McCain mystery is set in 1971 and reflects some of the civil turbulence of those Vietnam years as they wash over a small Iowa town. 

Plot. A hawkish Senator is trying to ride a waning tide of patriotic enthusiasm to keep himself in office. But his handpicked candidate for a Congressional seat gets murdered after an altercation with a fellow veteran who has made public his opposition to the war.

That John Kerry-sympathizing vet is quickly suspected of the crime by the new sheriff, and the man’s best friend, McCain, has an uphill battle finding evidence of his innocence.  

Time and tide. Gorman remembers the early 70s well (Janis Joplin is heard on the radio at one point singing “Me and Bobby McGee”). The novel is aptly named for the mournful Doors song, “Riders On the Storm,” which recalls the darkly violent and divided mood of a time marked by the growing national ambivalence about Vietnam. He is also a sharp observer of small-town politics and social distinctions.

The portrayal of women in the novel does much to fix its particular point in social history. Whether wives, lovers, or others, they are mostly untouched by the feminist creeds that came to dominate public discourse about gender roles in the years that followed. Gorman shows them as attractive and sexy, reliant on the men in their lives, homemakers and loving mothers of small children.

Ed Gorman
Two, however, emerge as professional women, one of them McCain’s own girl Friday, bracingly independent and unapologetically resourceful. Another seems able to blend marriage and career, though we don’t learn quite everything a candid review would reveal about her until well after she gets involved in McCain’s attempts to rescue his falsely accused friend.

While Gorman does not necessarily endorse it, there is much of the 1970s indulgence in extramarital sex, booze, and other pastimes that had a generation smugly confident in themselves because they were under 30. But you can feel the earth shifting under McCain’s feet as the 1960s recede into the hazy distance behind him.

Wrapping up. This is an enjoyable novel that has as much fun capturing the time and place of its setting as puzzling over the clues pointing to the solution of the mystery it poses. Whether westerns or crime fiction, you know you’re in good hands with Ed Gorman. I recommend this one.

Riders on the Storm is currently available in print and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Further reading/viewing:

Image credits:
Author’s photo,

Coming up: Max Evans, Bobby Jack Smith You Dirty Coward!

Monday, September 8, 2014

3 Bad Men (1926)

If you can tolerate the pop-up ads every 15 minutes at YouTube, there’s a fine copy of John Ford’s silent western 3 Bad Men currently available for viewing there. Otherwise, it’s been paired with another Ford film from his years at Fox studios, Hangman’s House (1928), and both are on DVD.

As you would expect from Ford, it is a big, sprawling western, set against the picturesque Tetons of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with several scenes shot in the Mojave. Ford imagines a land rush in Dakota Territory as thousands of settlers bring covered wagons to the town of Custer to await the opening of Sioux lands to homesteaders and gold prospectors. The year is 1876 (or 1877 depending on how you read the intertitles).