On the Western

Bannack, Montana (photo  m.a.h. hinton)
Bannack, Montana (photo m.a.h. hinton)

As a literary and film art form, the western’s time has passed. And yet… there remains a small number of dedicated western fans who remain loyal to this most American of all art forms. I count myself as a proud member of this anachronistic remnant.

One of the many peculiarities of the western is that the greatest practitioners of the western as art form came after the form’s apparent demise: Elmer Kelton, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy. (Elmore Leonard is still alive and writing, but he has not written a western in decades.)

Even though McCarthy and McMurtry have been critically and commercially successful,  any true western fan is painfully aware that good, new westerns are difficult to find. Those that are published for the most part seem to fall into one of four ultimately dissatisfying categories: reprints of old classic westerns that are in the public domain anyway, historical fiction novels that happen to take place in a “western” context, romance fiction that takes place in a “western” context, and male-adventure fiction (soft-core action stories featuring hot, beautiful women and virile, superhuman protagonists) that takes place in a “western” context.

While it is certainly nice to have reprints available of classic works by Max Brand, Zane Grey, Owen Wister and other pioneers in the western form, these writers are not the best example of the art form. Some, like Grey, are unreadable by modern standards. And since all of these writers are available for free from places like Gutenberg, what is the point of re-publishing them anyway. There are a great many writers whose works are out of print but not in the public domain that could be published. But these are not the ones generally reprinted.

What western fans really want… what the publishing and movie industry needs…. what America needs is more new western writers and new western books, and more western movies. The myths and symbols that we embrace, share, and love define and shape us. Fans of the western know that as a country, a people, and individuals, America was at its best when the dominant American myth was the western.

What fans of the western intuitively understand is that by turning our back on that most American of myths, by replacing it with smaller and smaller “post-modern” myths, we have left a large hole in the American soul and psyche. A hole as large as…well, the West itself.

“Box Canyon” a Short Story by Mark Hinton


Regular readers of MontanaWriter know that I have been working to break my bad habit of writing something, sitting on it for awhile, then just throwing it away. As a marketing plan for a writer, it has not been a successful strategy.

Recently I decided to start sending a few things out instead of just sitting on them… and so I have. My short story “Box Canyon” is now available atTheWesternOnline.com. It is, as the title of the website indicates, a western story.

Westerns are, admittedly, anachronistic. At first glance they may seem to belong to another time. Yet as a writer I find myself fascinated with the possibilities and promises of the form… and I also enjoy writing them.

I have always loved westerns. They remain my favorite genre of both film and popular fiction. Westerns are what I find myself turning to when I am feeling lonesome or restless… when I am feeling a need to reconnect with my roots, with the best part of myself.

My original plan had been to put a number of my western and noir stories together in a separate volume entitled Montana Noir and publish it with Montana Poems on kindle. Recently I decided to go a different route and so started re-editing the stories and sending them out.

Thank you to the folks at TheWesternOnline.com for liking my story enough to publish it.

You can find TheWesternOnline.com and my short story “Box Canyon” here.


Book Review: Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell

connellIn 1969, I watched the moon landing with my mother’s family including her grandfather who was in his mid 90s at the time. When he was born in the early 1870s (I don’t recall the exact year) steam locomotion was still a new technology, and the First Transcontinental Railroad was very recent history. In his lifetime he saw the invention of the car, the invention of the airplane, and finally rockets to the moon. He remarked that day that seeing Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon was the highlight of his life.

A few years later I visited Little Bighorn Battlefield for the first time. Sometime during walking around the battlefield it dawned on me that my great-grandfather had been alive when Custer, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull fought where I was now standing. Within his long lifetime, the Montana I knew and lived in had gone from being true wilderness to a place with interstates and television.

It has been said that more books have been written about the Battle of Little Bighorn that any other battle in history. The obvious question is why? Why does a battle in the small corner of present day Montana still matter to people?

Like the Battle of Isandlwana (present day South Africa, January 22, 1879), the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 continues to capture our imagination precisely because it represents ultimately the last violent confrontation between wilderness and modernity. At both Isandlwana and Little Bighorn the native people won… but their victories ultimately meant their complete and utter defeat.

Because there are so many books about Custer’s Last Stand, it has taken me decades to decide which one to read. I wanted to read the best one, the definitive one. At last, I recently settled upon Evan S. Connell’s now classic Son of the Morning Star, and I am glad I did.

Like Stephen Ambrose and Cornelius Ryan, Connell brings narrative power to history. It is clear that his research is broad and deep, but it is the way he tells the story that keeps you turning pages. Son of the Morning Star was first published in 1984. I read  2001 edition from History Book Club with a “new” introduction. Sometimes “new” introductions written for older works seem pointless, like changing floor mats on an old car and selling it as new. But Connell’s brief “look back” at his work 20 years down road is illustrative and adds to the pleasure of the book.

The site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield is the stark and empty plains of eastern Montana. When I was young, I thought that Montana should end where the mountains end… somewhere around Laurel, Montana, or maybe Billings. I had no time for the great, empty plains. “Give it to North Dakota” I said. As time has passed, I have grown to love eastern Montana and western North Dakota as much as the mountainous West. There is a spiritualness to empty spaces that grows on you. That sense is heightened as you walk Custer’s battlefield and remember what happened there. Having now at last read Son of the Morning Star, those feelings will no doubt be more pronounced for me next time I visit The Little Bighorn Battlefield.


Book Review: The Ruthless Range by Lewis Patten

“For the judging of contemporary literature the only test is one’s personal taste. If you much like a new book, you must call it literature even though you find no other soul to agree with you, and if you dislike a book you must declare that it is not literature though a million voices should shout you that you are wrong. The ultimate decision will be made by Time.” ~ Ford Madox Ford

RuthlessRange1The distinction between literary and genre fictions (mysteries, westerns, fantasy, and sci.fi.) is largely an artificial one. Those who still insist on making anachronistic literary distinctions do it for the same reason that all snobs make such declarations, self-aggrandizing assholery.

The only distinctions that can legitimately be made in literature are between good writing and bad writing and good stories and bad stories. When a work of fiction takes hold of your imagination, when the language continually invites you to turn pages the writer has done his or her job. When the book haunts you and you can remember it years and years later, the writer has written a masterpiece.

Having said all that, and believing all that to be true, I nonetheless make the following self-consciously ironic statement: The Ruthless Range by Lewis B. Patten is fully and completely a genre-fiction western in both its execution and delivery. It is not great literature by any stretch of the definition, but I did enjoy it as I enjoy all Lewis Patten books.

Patten writes in the western noir style. His stories are not as bleak as H.A. DeRosso’s but they are also not as sunlit as L’Amour. His characters are haunted and hunted men. They are driven by fate and circumstances, they are broken and break others. Violence touches them and touches those they love.

In The Ruthless Range, a gunfighter longs to hang up his guns. But in every town he goes to there is someone who wants to prove that he is faster. Shot to hell and pursued into the mountains by a crooked posse the main character, Jase Mellor, is rescued and put back together by a rancher. When the rancher is murdered, Jase has to save the ranch from the many people who want to destroy the ranch and kill Mellor. At stake are the lives of his ex-wife who had been forced into a  life of prostitution and the life of the ranch widow who has become Mellor’s love interest.

In the story there is nothing new that is not in a hundred westerns. It is Patten’s style and the grim, relentless pacing that makes the book, makes any Patten western, worth the reading. Patten does not give his main character or his reader any chance to rest. Like Mellor we move with grim fatalism and no sleep from violence to violence, from defeat to defeat. The end result is a highly readable western with icons and cliches just edgy enough for us to sink our teeth into.

Book Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales by Forrest Carter

The-Outlaw-Josey-Wales2-185x300In summer we often gravitate to “lighter” fare, summer blockbuster movies, quick-read novels. What is it about long days that make us want to shy away from heavy lifting?

The movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is one of Clint Eastwood’s most memorable westerns – great characters, memorable lines (“Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.”), and great scenery.

In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood arrived as a true western star, in Josey Waleshe fully completes the work of art. In the spaghetti westerns the rough outline is there, but like the scenery of those films Eastwood as western star and the West as a place of grandeur and limitless vistas is greatly diminished, cramped and small, a European’s vision of the West and the western myth. Eastwood directedHigh Plains Drifter and Josey Wales so they are two of his first real Westerns. In the end, only an American can direct a true western, for the western hero, or western anti-hero, is the most American of all icons.

The movie The Outlaw Josey Wales is based on a the book that was originally called something like Gone to Texas. The story of its author, if Wikipedia is to be believed,  is almost as interesting as the book itself and mirrors the story in many ways.

Forrest Carter (Asa Carter) like his fictional outlaw was apparently an unrepentant confederate. A Klansman and speech writer for George Wallace, Carter fought against integration and the Federal government for years. Finally like Josey Wales he fled to Texas and tried to put his past behind him, something he was for the most part able to do. The book now called The Outlaw Josey Wales was his first novel.

As a western novel, The Outlaw Josey Wales is very satisfying. In story and tone the movie follows the book very closely. Most of the great lines from the movie come from the book, except the best line, “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy” (here a screenwriter or Eastwood made a great decision).

In the movie, the female love interest is played by willowy and wimpy Sondra Locke. Carter’s love interest is more Spillanesque (for those not fluent in Mickey Spillane, read that statuesque), the picture is of a dreamy Velma. For Carter, one theme stressed in the book is of men and women big enough for Texas, big enough to live in the West. The pale and sickly looking Locke would be only big and strong enough for a cramped and tiny eastern state like Rhode Island.

The Outlaw Josey Wales – the movie and the book –are worth spending a few summer evenings with. Settle into your favorite chair, pour yourself a few fingers of good bourbon, and enjoy. This is, after all, what summer is all about.

Book Review: .44 by H.A. DeRosso

44_DeRossoIf you grow up in the West and and do not like westerns, it is the same as if you grew up in Belgium and do not like beer. At the very least, you have proven yourself to be someone who cannot be trusted.

The status that westerns have in American culture is much diminished these days. Great westerns are still being written – see Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Elmer Kelton. But the greatest practioners of the classic western are long gone.

H.A. DeRosso wrote hard-boiled stories for the pulps in the 1940s and 1950s. He wrote a number of great western short-stories and a few novels. His westerns have been described by Bill Pronzini as western noir. Pronzini has edited a number of collections of his short stories. Each collection is great.

Of DeRosso’s novels, .44 is my favorite. It epitomizes DeRosso’s style: austere, hard-boiled, grim, lonely and yet,… poetic at times. The characters have an archetypal quality that transcends the merely conventional. The desert  landscape they inhabit is mythological– ethereal and bleak.

There are, admittedly, more realistic western writers and much more historically accurate ones. And yet with the possible exception of Cormac McCarthy there are no western writers that are as satisfying as DeRosso in the end.

DeRosso is satisfying because his work is so mythic. Westerns, after all, are suppose to be mythic. To quote Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

.44 begins with one of those great first paragraphs that hook you and then lives up to all that first paragraph promises. Everything that is classic DeRosso, that is western noir is here: menace, fate, and myth.

The two riders working up the mountain towards the pass travelled about a mile apart. There was not hurry in their progress. The first rider made no effort to quicken his horse’s pace and thus draw farther ahead. The second rider, too, seemed content with the rate he was travelling. He kept his distance, not trying at all to overtake the other, even though he had been hired to kill this first rider and intended to do so before nightfall.