Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The West

I can't get into the modern literary tales of the West. I use that labored phrasing to avoid saying "Western," as I want to separate 20th century stories of people and families coping with the challenges of living in great isolation from adventure stories of the 19th century. Wallace Stegner is a popular modern Western writer. I read Big Rock Candy Mountain and thought it decent. I started Angle of Repose but couldn't get into it. Crossing to Safety is sitting around the house, read by my spouse but not by me. The man won prizes galore and gets top marks from everyone, but it always felt a little bit like a longer Steinbeck to me.

I had an even harder time with Ivan Doig. I read English Creek and just did not get it. I love Montana, it's gorgeous, but apparently I don't want to read about it. I don't understand why these books don't click for me. It could be, despite living in the West, that I am city person at heart. It could also be that I am a southerner and as the t-shirts used to say "you wouldn't understand."

One exception to my western aversion is Cormac McCarthy, but he is so stylistically singular that he would be an exception. I will say that I found his stripped down No Country for Old Men to be less appealing than Blood Meridian.


Steve said...

Here is the thing about Stegner (full disclosure: I think Angle of Repose is one of the better American novels of the last few decades and liked Crossing to Safety a good bit as well): Most, if not all, of his fiction was dedicated to working out the big questions in his own life - his tortured family history, his distance from his family and himself, and his ideas about how the West (if you will pardon the capital W) shaped them and him. As a result, he basically wrote the same novel over and over again, trying to get it right. You could make the same observation about some other lions of the 20th century (Fitzgerald, Updike, Faulkner - a bit less obviously - come to mind). Your problem, or one of them (you may just not like his stuff), is that you read TBRCM first. That happens to be one of his first works and it is certainly the most autobiographical - many of the scenes are lifted straight from his own past. While I think his writing shines in most of his books, by the time he wrote his later stuff, particularly Angle and Crossing to Safety, he had managed to put a little more distance between himself and his stories. The result is that the later stuff reads less like well-written reportage (which can get boring after a while, even if it is technically adept) and more like drama.

I would give Angle of Repose another try.

One underrated, classic western (and it is definitely just that) is Jack Schaeffer's Shane - will take you a day to read and just a great story. Not at all like the movie with nancy boy Alan Ladd as Shane.

Tripp said...

OK, maybe Angle of Repose will get another shot. It can go with Catcher in the Rye, another one that I somehow missed.

Totally agree on Updike. He is all about examining the aging American male. And being horny.

Brack said...

I second Steve's comments re: Stegner. The depth of his characters and the richness of their relationships are up there w/ those of Robertson Davies.


P.S. Speaking of Robertson Davies, get ready for a Little Christmas this dieses Wochenende, T.

Tripp said...

With Davies, eh? Well maybe I should give it another look. I think he is one of the absolute tops, of all time, of all nations. At least the English speaking ones.

Your allusion eludes me, but it fills me with trepidation.

Steve said...

The Little Christmas! Who is Parlabane and who is Darcourt?

Tripp said...

Shoot man, now I have to go flipping through the Cornish trilogy.