How the West Was Done

Zane Grey (Oregon Historical Society Research Library).

I’m not a big fan of western novels, movies, and TV series — those book and screen creations set in the American West, often during the 1800s, often populated with outlaws, sheriffs, cowboys, gunfights, horses, saloons, etc. — and of course more than a few times featuring lone, laconic strangers riding into town. Sure, such creations frequently offer excitement, courage, the pioneering spirit, and so on, but they can also be off-putting.

Why? A predominant focus on white men, even though there were many cowboys of color in the real 19th-century American West. Brutality toward, and repulsive stereotyping of, Native Americans. Rampant sexism — whether in the form of condescending chivalry or macho viciousness. Also, many western creations can be rather formulaic.

But there have been some western novels I’ve found compelling, and usually it was because they were sort of anti-westerns satirizing/criticizing the genre or turning some conventions on their head.

Among the novels I’ve liked a lot are Charles Portis’ True Grit and Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune. They attracted me for several reasons — including the fact that they both star female characters: teen Mattie Ross in the first novel and Eliza Sommers in the second. The half-Chilean Eliza is also not a totally white heroine.

In the young-adult-fiction realm, the 19th-century portion of Louis Sachar’s Holes novel features a white Texan named Kate Barlow who becomes a deadly and charismatic outlaw after the Black farmer she loves is killed by racists.

Then there’s Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, one of the most violent literary novels ever written as it depicts the homicidal barbarity of a gang of white men in the 19th-century West who ruthlessly slaughter male and female Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and others. No whitewashing of white misdeeds here, and the writing is amazing, but it’s an ultra-painful read.

There are also some nasty goings-on in McCarthy’s absorbing Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) — but not at the carnage level of Blood Meridian.

Among other western books I’ve enjoyed is The Prairie — the 1827 installment of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels quintet best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Protagonist Natty Bumppo is a mostly likable guy whose attributes include having relatively tolerant views about Native Americans for a man of his time.

I also enjoyed some of The Virginian, Owen Wister’s influential 1902 novel responsible for a number of the tropes that would later appear in other western novels (including many written by the ultra-prolific Zane Grey) as well as in western movies and TV series. Derivative in those later creations, kind of original in Wister’s book.

The idea for this post occurred to me while reading Zane Grey for the first time last week. I looked for his most famous work — Riders of the Purple Sage — at my local library, but, after not finding it there, chose another Grey novel at random: the Nevada-based Boulder Dam. Turned out to be set in the post-frontier 1930s, so not a classic western, but it was quite a page-turner. Still, it had some of the disturbing flaws of certain western novels — disdain for Native Americans (Grey vilely called them “savage red-skinned tribes” in the prologue), racial slurs against African Americans, and false insinuations that only white men are capable of doing great things. Also, to repeat a word from my second paragraph, the novel was rather formulaic and featured a young male protagonist (Lynn Weston) who, while appealing, perodically didn’t seem believable as a character creation.

I haven’t read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Jack Schaefer’s Shane, or Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, but saw the compelling movie versions of the latter two.

Which reminds me that film icon John Wayne of course appeared in various westerns (including the first movie version of the aforementioned True Grit) while usually playing brave, “manly” characters even as he didn’t serve in World War II in real life. There is some dispute about whether the right-wing Wayne deliberately avoided enlisting or made an attempt to do so but wasn’t selected because of his age (over 30 at the time), his movie stardom, and his having a family. Yup, the actors who played fictional cowboys were often not so courageous in real life.

Your thoughts on the western genre? Novels in that realm you’ve liked or not liked?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about the tone-deaf hiring of a communications person by my town’s school district — is here.

Doubling Down on Double Meanings of Book Titles

Titles of novels can be interesting for various reasons, including occasionally having more than one meaning.

Take the book I’m currently reading — Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars. Its main character, Elma York, is a brilliant mathematician who’s among the novel’s “calculating stars.” The apocalyptic work’s story line is also about sending rockets into outer space, where I hear there are stars. Perhaps “calculating stars,” if those heavenly bodies had anything to do with sending a meteorite crashing down at the start of Kowal’s book — obliterating much of America’s East Coast and setting off a cascade of climate change that could imperil the entire planet.

Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Remarkable Creatures stars Mary Anning, a 19th-century amateur British paleontologist expert at finding and identifying fossils of dinosaurs (remarkable creatures indeed). This brilliant working-class woman and her friend Elizabeth are themselves remarkable creatures (humans) for the work they do and how they deal with sexist, condescending male scientists.

Elma York also deals with plenty of infuriating sexism in the 1950s as she attempts to become an astronaut in The Calculating Stars.

Then we have Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which features Dellarobia Turnbow’s attempted flight from an unsatisfying marriage and is also about climate change affecting the flight behavior of monarch butterflies. But no space flight here. 🙂

The title of (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That is of course a phrase referencing a feeling of resignation. Given the novel’s strong focus on the problematic U.S. medical system, the title can also refer to how expensive health care often is for individual Americans (yes, “so much for that” care).

Walter Mosley’s mystery A Red Death has a title that evokes both bloodshed and the era it’s set in — the “Red Scare” time when vile right-wing Senator Joe McCarthy targeted communists, alleged communists, and other innocent liberal-leaning people.

Colleen McCullough’s 18th-century-set Morgan’s Run has a title that evokes both a place and Richard Morgan’s dismaying run of bad luck that included being slammed with bogus criminal charges and shipped to an Australian penal colony. But his run of dramatic experiences has positive moments, too.

Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris is about a French race horse named Perestroika who roams the City of Light after getting loose from her stable. The adventurous animal is aptly named because she ends up “restructuring” her life and the lives of several other critters and humans. The Russian word “perestroika,” which became well known under the leadership of the late Mikhail Gorbachev, means “restructuring.”

Philippa Gregory’s novel Earthly Joys has a title that refers to gardening/landscaping and…sex.

Lisa Genova’s Still Alice stars brilliant Harvard professor Dr. Alice Howland, who is STILL Alice even after her mind is devastated by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Another title interpretation might be a bit of a stretch, but, as the disease advances, parts of Alice’s once-active mind become increasingly dormant (as in still).

And, in a different form of titular double meaning, Jack London gave the semi-autobiographical protagonist in his novel Martin Eden that name so it would have the initials “me.”

Any other multiple-meaning titles you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a large, welcome promise of state money to help fix my town’s old school buildings — is here.

Dislike the Protagonist, Like the Novel

From the miniseries based on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair novel.

When we dislike or have mixed feelings about a novel’s protagonist, the author usually has to work harder to attract and keep the reader’s interest. Obviously, it’s easier for the public to love a book whose main character is a great human being. Yet there are many cases where novels with less-than-admirable lead players are well worth our attention. Why? Let’s offer some examples that show some of the ways.

The latest example for me is The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (which I’ve read 90% of so far). Swiss writer Joel Dicker’s translated-from-the-French, U.S.-set novel stars Marcus Goldman — a brash, abrasive, egotistical, rabidly ambitious, at-times-mean young author. But the book remains appealing for the most part, because the mystery plot is wrenchingly compelling and the majority of secondary characters are well-drawn, with some likable. Plus Goldman himself has some positive qualities — including doggedness, a measure of courage, and a measure of integrity as he demonstrates his loyalty to Quebert when that novel’s second-most-prominent character is accused of a long-ago murder in a small New England town hardly as idyllic as it first seems. Also, Goldman has some insecurity beneath his obnoxious exterior.

Of course, there are often reasons why a person develops into someone less than likable. In the case of Marcus, his pushy nutcase of a mother might have had something to do with it. The fictional Goldman family is from…Montclair — the New Jersey town where I live! 😲

Speaking of murder, Crime and Punishment protagonist Raskolnikov is undeniably guilty of a double homicide. But Fyodor Dostoevsky’s iconic novel is compulsively readable because it’s brilliantly written, has a riveting hallucinatory vibe, and contains tons of psychological nuance. Plus we feel at least somewhat sympathetic to Raskolnikov because he becomes guilt-ridden, depressed, and haunted.

The title of the novel I read immediately before Dicker’s book — The Brethren by John Grisham — refers to three former judges who are less-than-savory men. They’re all in the same prison for serious crimes, and are running a nasty scam from inside jail to try to get hush money from prominent closeted gay men in various parts of the U.S. — a scheme helped by a low-life lawyer on the outside. While the corrupt “Brethren” have a good quality or two, they’re jerks overall. But the book has Grisham’s usual page-turning allure, helped by a separate yet interrelated story line involving a Central Intelligence Agency-backed presidential candidate.

More memorable novels with unlikable main characters? Among them are The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. In that last book, protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly is buffoonishly hilarious enough for a reader to feel better about him than he might deserve.

Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci visiting my town before it even existed 🙂 — is here.

Characters Who Are Among Literature’s Laboring Luminaries

Upton Sinclair

Tomorrow, September 5, is Labor Day in the United States. (Workers are also celebrated in many other countries on May 1 each year.) I thought I’d mark the American occasion by mentioning just a few of the many memorable workers in literature.

One of the most famous is Jurgis Rudkus — because he and other characters in The Jungle, and the descriptions of horrid workplace conditions in that 1906 Upton Sinclair novel, spurred President Theodore Roosevelt to push Congress to improve sanitary conditions in meat-packing plants. Of course, the better-than-nothing-but-inadequate legislation was more about making food safer for consumers than about also improving things for workers toiling under greedy/rotten bosses, but… The beleaguered Rudkus is a first-generation immigrant, representing how some of the most exploited employees are new to the country.

Speaking of people doing very difficult jobs under very difficult conditions, we have the French mineworkers Etienne Lantier and Catherine Maheu in Emile Zola’s novel Germinal (1885). A strike against bad ownership, a tragic mine disaster, and more place the admirable, likable characters in dramatic situations.

The titular English carpenter of another 19th-century novel, George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), is hardworking, strong, smart, stoic, and moral — but a bit holier-than-thou and not always the best judge of character.

Philippa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, a 20th-century (1998) historical novel set in the 17th century, stars another hard worker: royal gardener John Tradescant — partly based on a real person.

When you’re a 20th-century physician in the 18th century, the work is often much more challenging given the primitive state of medicine. Such is the case with Dr. Claire Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling Outlander series (the first novel published in 1991 and the ninth in 2021, with one more to come).

Being a waiter/waitress is usually a demanding job, and one example of such a character is Samad Miah Iqbal of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000).

Then there’s Violet Brown — the delightful, brainy, resourceful, ultra-efficient secretary to the novel’s main character in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009).

I’d like to conclude by thanking labor unions, which — while not always perfect — have done so much for employees in the face of too many less-than-caring supervisors and companies.

Any memorable workers in literature you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about the start of school and a wasteful planned hiring — is here.