STILL WILD: SHORT FICTION OF THE AMERICAN WEST
Ed. by Larry McMurtry
According to Larry McMurtry, introducing this selection of stories and excerpts, the American West of literature “is not so much the West of history or the West of geography as it is the West of the imagination.”
Of course any place in fiction is a place of the imagination, but what McMurtry is really saying is that the West has always been a bit of a myth. And in Still Wild the mythic West is with us yet.
What is the myth of the West? An outlaw land is part of it, and it’s no surprise that a number of these stories deal with criminals. A physical, outdoors kind of place is another part, though that is something any regional writing has to be these days. Indoors, we are now almost all the same.
But mainly the West is the land of opportunity. The geography of the new West is definitely “on the road” (Kerouac is one of the authors included here). Cars are the new horses, and the new cowboys a breed of vehicular nomads cruising the Interstates looking for better lives and new beginnings. The hero of the story “Gas Stations” is typical, on his way to California to set up his own repair shop. As he pulls out of a service station named Oasis he can see the camels and curved swords of “disguised Mormons” in the rearview mirror.
But while it is obvious that much has stayed the same, the myth has also changed with the times. The real West is, after all, what makes the West of myth, not the other way around.
The American West is no longer a frontier so much as a space between, not just the part of the country lying west of the Mississippi but the entire wasteland stretching from New York to Los Angeles. It is the Empire Wilderness that Robert Kaplan described in his recent travelogue, a vast region of deserts and highways populated by a nomadic, Greyhound underclass. Poverty is the norm. Lives of isolation and routine lead to closer personal relationships than are found in the city. Even the drugs of choice are significant. You might as well leave those amphetamines at the disco, you’re in laid-back weed country when you enter the West.
In terms of its writing the West is clearly the land that hip forgot. The shallow but entertaining banter that characterizes so much of today’s urban writing has no place in its landscape. The media culture that is the air hip breathes hasn’t reached the prairies. These laconic Westerners express themselves in a language without wit and, aside from the odd understatement, almost without irony. When they say something you better believe they mean it, whether they’re making love or offering to make a rival eat the floor. It’s a big land, with big people expressing big feelings in short words and quick physical action.
The quality of the stories varies, as with any anthology, but overall the selection is very good. The authors include a number of women as well as Mexican and Native American writers. Many of the names – Carver, Gass, Erdrich, Ford, Proulx – are known as more than just a regional voice.
One thing I would take issue with, however, is the editorial decision to make this a selection from 1950 to the present. McMurtry has chosen this date because he feels that it is only in the second half of the twentieth century that Western writing came of age as a producer – as opposed to an importer – of first-rate authors. Before this the West was mostly being imagined by Romantic outsiders writing “dude” pulp.
McMurtry may have a point, but the selection is not representative of the entire half-century. There are 20 stories in total, which would lead one to expect an average of four per decade. In fact there is only one from the 1950s, one from the 60s, and maybe one and a half from the 70s. Eight of the stories were written in the 1990s, with four of these having just come out last year. Given McMurtry’s obvious interest in more recent fiction, the collection should have simply limited itself to the last couple of decades.
I say one and a half from the 70s because there is a Raymond Carver story included that is cited as having been published in the 1980s, though it was actually written ten years earlier and then revised for a later collection. But for some reason nothing about this history is explained in the acknowledgments or notes.
I think such a minor point is worth raising because the first story, Wallace Stegner’s “Buglesong”, is only listed as having been published in Stegner’s Collected Stories in 1990. The story itself, however, was one of Stegner’s first, and was written in 1937, a date that takes it well outside the scope of this anthology.
When inadequate annotation is combined with the higher than average number of typographical errors, Still Wild comes off looking like a bit of a rush job. Given the quality of talent it represents and the great interest it has, a little more care might have been in order.
Review first published August 12, 2000.