Landscape and Light in the Western

Two elements dominate in the West: landscape and light. When these two elements are missing, and you are from the West, you instantly note it. At least on a sub-conscious level. They are the two things that make any piece of Western fiction, art, or film “feel” true.

I admire the Western writing of H.A. De Rosso and Elmore Leonard very much. But the light and landscape they knew was Michigan.

I like Spaghetti Westerns, but the light and landscape behind them is invariably European. We instantly “feel” something different when we see a John Ford or John Wayne western.

In my recent review of Patten’s Guilt of a Killer Town I wrote the following:

[It is] “quality of light” issue that separates a Remington painting for a C.M. Russell one…. A Russell painting and a Remington painting are usually easily distinguished by the quality of light. And by the place landscape occupies.

In my long poem “Madison Buffalo Jump” I stated the issue this way:

Were Charlie Russell to paint this place, his eye
would capture the transforming maize and purples
of sage and grass. His studied strokes
evoking the very emotion of stone and shadow.
A triangular composition: three stone
rings balanced between the broken crown of rock
above and the bluing, mountainous sky. His
horseback understanding of prickly pear
and rattlesnakes providing textured light
to the clean, white canvass. Rival Remington,
classically trained but Eastern-bound, would hue these
rings in a different way, his brush strokes giving
an Impressionistic feel to his work–
the contrasting pastels of blues and yellows
showing techniques of Van Gogh. Organically
inappropriate, perhaps, but much acclaimed,
being a bit nearer to European
models of Art. (But for that even his “cow-
boy and Indian” art is seldom hung near
Dutch portraits or French haystacks– Western landscapes
and themes making poor subject for serious
Art.)  

Here are some paintings by Remington and Russell that show this idea very clearly. More clearly than I can probably make it with words.

While we can admire Remington and love his work, for a true Westerner, only Russell will ever “feel” right.

Remington_01

Russell_02

Remington_02

Russell_03

 

Book Review: Guilt of a Killer Town by Lewis B. Patten

 

Guilt of a Killer Town

Book reviews are always difficult for me.

I read much, but do not finish everything I start. I have also found summarizing plots to be a tedious thing. I suppose it is because plot always seems secondary to me. I start a book because I like the first paragraph. I read the book as long as the writing remains as interesting as that first paragraph.

It is not as simple as that, of course. But style remains primary for me.

I have recently “inherited” a stack of Lewis B. Patten novels. As I read them, I will try to review them here. I make no promises. But will do my best.

Book: Guilt of a Killer Town, by Lewis B. Patten

Cover: A great Western paperback cover. You would pick up the book for the cover alone.

Style: Western-Noir

Plot: Frank Kailey returns to his hometown after two years in prison, only to find that not only is he not wanted, but that most of the people in the town feel so much guilt about what happened to Kailey that they want him dead. Mayhem ensues.

Review

The very brief Wikipedia article about Patten says that he was born and died in Denver. There is in his writing a decidedly “western-ness” that Midwestern-based Western writers like H.A. De Rosso and Elmore Leonard just do not have. It the same kind of “quality of light” issue that separates a Remington painting for a C.M. Russell one.

In painting the difference shows up as tone on the canvass. A Russell painting and a Remington painting are usually easily distinguished by the quality of light. And by the place landscape occupies.

In writing, the difference between the Western-born writer and others is also one of light and landscape. Here is the opening paragraph of Guilt of a Killer Town:

At sundown, Frank Kailey halted his horse at the edge of the bluff and stared with somber eyes at Medicine Arrow, New Mexico, sprawling at his feet. Toward the west, a loop of river caught and reflected the gold of the dying sun.

These lines are pure Western… and pure Patten, when he is at his best: light and landscape. They are why I enjoy Patten and many of the Western writers I do.

A few more lines from Guilt of a Killer Town:

While still half a mile from the cabin, he felt the first drop of rain…. Ahead, now, he could see a curtain of rain rolling across the land.

* * * * * * * * * *

He turned and walked to the window. He stared down into the street. He looked at the bank, thinking that McCurdy was dead because of him. He looked at the Red Ram Saloon down beyond the livery stable, thinking Haploid was also dead. Because of him? He shook his head wearily. Neither man was dead because of him. They were dead because each had done something wrong. They were dead because they had helped kill Amos Kailey, as sure as if they had fired a bullet into him.