Photo credit: Rajah Bose
Editor's note: Catch Jess Walter's event at the Portland Book Festival on Thursday, November 5, at 6 p.m. Buy the preorder and event ticket here.
A novelist should never say never
As soon as you make a hard-and-fast rule about writing (for instance, never
use the second person) you quickly find yourself longing to break that rule.
I remember once chiding a college class over their love of zombie stories, only to get so worked up, I started writing one that very night.
I think writers are prone to making these empty aesthetic pronouncements and arbitrary rules because we don’t like to admit there might not be
any rules. It’s terrifying, staring at a blank page with nothing but disorder and insecurity to rein us in. So we cling to genre and to various schools and styles. We herd ourselves into meaningless pens: I’m a realist, a modernist, a minimalist; I write speculative fiction, crime fiction, autofiction
And we assiduously avoid certain genres, sometimes because they hit too close to home. Being from the Pacific Northwest, I have avoided writing much about fishing, even though I get misty just thinking about A River Runs Through It
, or the books of David James Duncan
I have been even more of a contrarian whenever anyone asks me about the dustiest, most worn narrative trail of them all — the western.
“Oh, I’ll never write a western,” I said more than once. “That’s horse porn.”
I could survive years eating nothing but my own words.
My new novel, The Cold Millions
, isn’t really
a western. It’s set in a city in 1909 and follows labor activists and mining magnates, undercover Pinkertons and vaudeville stars.
But the impulse to write it came from my desire to write one of those big, archetypal frontier stories about violence birthing civilization, about the degradation of native cultures and the environment, about guns and goons and brothels, all set in my hometown, Spokane, Washington, when it was exploding out of the 19th century into the 20th. (Imagine the TV show, Deadwood
, I used to say, but with 100,000 people.)
The Western motif really landed when I realized I was writing a stranger-rides-into-town
tale, but that my stranger wouldn’t be a Clint Eastwood figure, but the real-life labor organizer and suffragist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who appears as a key character in the book. What if
, I thought, instead of Gary Cooper saving a Western town, it’s a 19-year-old pregnant activist demanding social justice and “the emancipation of the vagina”?
Back when I was dismissing Westerns, it wasn’t out of disinterest or disrespect. In fact, it was the opposite. As a kid, I loved my grandfather’s Louis L’Amour
novels: the nonstop action, the easily discernible good guys and bad guys. They were the only adult books I remember anyone reading.
I spent summers and weekends on my grandparents’ ranch — they ran 100 head of beef cattle on 640 acres of rough, remote timber land, with a few hilltop fields of alfalfa. We moved up there for a few years and lived in a block house heated by a woodstove. We got one cut of hay each year, never enough to feed the herd. My grandfather had to drive a school bus to make ends meet.
Here’s something they don’t tell you about living on a ranch: It sucks.
It’s lonesome. Boring. No libraries, no sushi. There is a great deal of killing. Chickens and cows and coyotes and random animals you find stuck in barbed wire. You’re always putting something out of its misery. You name a cute calf Brownie, and two years later you notice in the freezer your dad has written on a white package: “Brownie — flank steak.”
After the ranch, we moved to a house directly next door to a drive-in movie theater. A third of the movies I watched from my tree fort were westerns. I can still see a cowboy on that tiny screen 200 yards away, astride a horse, looking over his land, seemingly at one with nature.
Even then, I would think about the fences that cowboy put up, the streams he’d have diverted and soiled with cow shit, the predators he’d have shot, the old hay truck his son will one day push into a ditch. In some ways, nothing has been more dangerous than the American myth of the West, the iconoclastic, self-reliant individual against nature.
As we face an existential climate crisis, think about it: what could be more villainous than man against
When I went to make this list of my favorite western novels, I realized they were all books that subvert
the genre somehow, that challenge it, fuse it with humor or metafictional techniques, or simply dynamite its central myth to smithereens.
Since the 1960s, revisionist westerns have been the norm, using the tropes of the old West to point out the genre’s embrace of environmental degradation, of racism, and misogyny.
Every western since that time exists on a continuum of honoring the conventions while also challenging them — with jarring violence, with humor, with a focus on characters left out of traditional westerns.
At the far end of that continuum is one of my favorite novels of all time, Little Big Man
by Thomas Berger (1964), a picaresque and ripping satire, a western that could’ve been written by Cervantes
or Laurence Sterne
. A more recent novel, The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt (2011) is less antic but no less outrageous and funny.
by Percival Everett (1994) is wildly irreverent and shocking, and like all of Everett’s genre-busting work, nearly impossible to pigeon-hole — or to forget. C Pam Zhang’s terrific How Much of These Hills Is Gold
(2020) replaces that old lore with a new poetic and mythic journey.
Less obvious in its subversion, and maybe the most influential revisionist western, is the brilliant and wry True Grit
by Charles Portis (1968), whose use of stiff King Jamesian dialect and the stylistic choice to forgo contractions crept into every depiction of the West that followed. Similarly, Paulette Giles’s News of the World
(2016) is less interested in blowing up conventions than retooling them with language and characters that feel at once gritty and tender.
The mid-1980s might be my favorite period for the anti-western. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
(1985) is so brutal and hypnotic it’s like sitting in on someone else’s nightmare.
It’s hard to believe Lonesome Dove
by Larry McMurtry came out the same year — so cannily does it remind us of the charm and adventure left in those classic stoical Western characters. Deadwood
by Pete Dexter (1986) (no relation to the great HBO show) is weird, funny, and boisterous, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
by Ron Hansen (1983) uses a documentary-style voice better than any writer since E. L. Doctorow
On Swift Horses
by Shannon Pufahl (2019), while set in a postwar America, is gorgeously written and somehow captures the space of the western, and the haunted, broken people who fill it. It falls into another category, my favorite modern
westerns, along with McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By
(1961) and McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men
Which brings me to the most "anti" of anti-westerns, and one of my favorite novels of any genre and any time, Fools Crow
by James Welch (1987). The story of Welch’s Blackfeet ancestors in Montana in 1870, it is as breathless and heartbreaking as anything you’ll ever read, and a fitting last word on the destructiveness of America’s Western mythology.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of six novels, including the bestsellers Beautiful Ruins
and The Financial Lives of the Poets
, the National Book Award finalist The Zero
, and Citizen Vince
, the winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. His short fiction has appeared in Harper's
, and Playboy
, as well as The Best American Short Stories
and The Best American Nonrequired Reading
. He lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington.