Neglected Westerns

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The fact that Five Books doesn’t consider “Western” a category of fiction already tells you one thing that ain’t right in the world. It used to be that a self-respecting bookstore always had a separate section for westerns. OK, so it was back in the days when one out of three Hollywood movies was a western. Those shelves were dominated by Louis L’Amour, Luke Short, and Zane Grey, it’s true, but with some mighty fine books nonetheless. Here are five good ones that the boys from the big publishing places tried to cut from the herd but are still well worth a read after a hard day in the saddle.

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    The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones
    by Charles Neider

    Once called the greatest western ever written, Neider's novel has also been acclaimed as “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.” What distinguishes the novel is “its mythic quality.” Neider certainly made a deliberate choice to make the story somewhat timeless. His hero has no name other than “the Kid.” Every page shines with prose that’s clean, precise and poetic: "It was good to sit in that town after the hills and Punta, to sit in a plaza and listen. It made us wonder how it would be to live in a place like that, with all the houses and faces and business and all the smells–grapes being pressed, eucalyptus trees, pine smoke, roses, meat curing, cheese drying, and the perfume you caught as you passed a lady on the street." Finally reissued by Apollo in 2016 after two decades of being out of print.

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    McCabe
    by Edmund Naughton

    Edmund Naughton’s 1959 western, McCabe, is mainly mentioned as a footnote to Robert Altman’s 1971 film McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Naughton’s protagonist, John McCabe, is closer to an anti-hero like Catch-22’s Yossarian than Marshal Will Kane. Though a dead-eye shot who’s adapted his Colt to fire without a trigger, he has only killed one man and him mostly by accident. He lives mostly as a traveling gambler but reminds himself that he was chased off a riverboat as a greenhorn amateur. He tries to be fair to the Chinese and Indians in the little mining town of Presbyterian Church where he decides to set up a saloon and, later, a whorehouse. And he is far ahead of his time in his attitude towards women. Much of what Altman was credited for putting into his revisionist western he owed to Naughton. And yet die-hard traditionalists will be satisfied with the climactic shoot-out with a trio of killers brought in by the big money corporation looking to take over McCabe's town.

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    To Be a Man
    by William Decker

    To Be a Man is about the end of the cowboy era and the timelessness of the cowboy code. Roscoe Banks grows up watching his father losing battles with the big ranches, loses his wife in childbirth when he starts his own place, and spends most of his life in the saddle, ranging from Montana to Arizona to cattle drives from Big Band. He watches his value as skilled hand diminish as mass production and machinery takes over: "They've got squeeze chutes, now, dodge gates, calf tubes...Don't need our kind." But he continues to uphold a code of hard work, honesty, a good hand with a rope, and no patience for fools. When he winds up an old man with a bad leg in a small Arizona town, he still has enough true grit to make a stand and put his life on the line for his principles. As Wallace Stegner put it, Roscoe Banks's story holds its own alongside Andy Adam's classic, Log of a Cowboy.

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    Soledad, or Solitudes
    by R. G. Vliet

    R. G. Vliet was a Texas poet and novelist who died much too earlier but left behind a trio of hypnotically beautiful westerns. Revised from his 1977 novel, Solitudes, Soledad tells the story of a cowboy suffering from epliepsy who becomes haunted by the photograph of a girl he finds in the belongings of a Mexican rider he accidentally kills. It may be the only western to have an epigram by Wallace Stevens ("We live in an old chaos of the sun.") The cowboy finds the girl, Soledad, in San Antonio. The dead man was her much-loved grandfather, and she eventually learns the truth. Despite this, Soledad and the cowboy find themselves irresistibly attracted to each other. There is no room for this relationship in the middle of all the guilt, suspicion, resentment, and the cowboy ends up riding out of town and back into the brush. "There ain't a man ain't alone," the cowboy thinks--which turns out to be the moral of his story. Soledad is the mythic story of the cowboy as loner.

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    Winds of Morning
    by H L Davis

    Winds of Morning takes place late in the era of westerns. Looking back after thirty years, its narrator tells a story that's a little bit about unraveling the truth behind a murder, more about herding some horses to a new pasture, and mostly about people and a place in the midst of changing from one era to another. Though horses and wagons are still the main ways of getting around, railroads, cars, and trucks are also regular fixtures. The first wave of homesteaders has receded, leaving a few successful big ranchers and businessmen, more struggling farmers and hired hands, and a lot of abandoned places. But it's still a world that revolves around horses, and Davis knew his: "Instead of trying to walk with the rocks moving and shifting underfoot, they merely started a patch sliding, set back, and coasted on it till it stopped, and then moved on and started another one to coast on. Not many animals are smarter than a range horse." Horses, men, land, weather, guns: all you need.

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