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Five Great Literary Westerns

The Western is one of the twentieth century’s most popular genres, and its recurring cast—the cowboy, the gunslinger, the Indian brave, and the outlaw—are contemporary archetypes.

Most of us first encounter the Western on-screen, through the classic movies of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood or through modern revivals like the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men and HBO’s small screen epics Deadwood and Westworld.

The genre’s beginnings, however, are on the page. In the first half of the twentieth century, children all over the world grew up with comics and pulp paperbacks about life on the range. In his story An Encounter, the great modernist James Joyce recalls childhood ‘Indian battles’ inspired by Western-themed comics. Some of the classic Western novels of this era, like Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, are still gripping reads, although dated in ways that are by turns funny and infuriating.

Given the rich history and enduring popularity of the Western, it’s small wonder that literary writers have frequently tackled it. In the hands of these authors, the genre tends to become just a little unrecognisable. Some of the books on this list insist on the injustice and violence of frontier life; others give voice to the hidden Black and LGBTQ histories of the West. Each of them will deepen your appreciation for a genre that doesn’t always get taken as seriously as it should.

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy is the modern master of the Western. Most of his novels are set in the bleached and awesome landscapes of the American Southwest, and no-one describes them better. Even when he steps into another genre he tends to bring a few elements of the Western with him: his lauded post-apocalyptic novel The Road features two male companions on a journey through a hostile land, encountering lawlessness and violence along the way.

Based on historical events that took place on the U.S./Mexico border in the 1850s, Blood Meridian tells the story of The Kid, a teenager from Tennessee who drifts West and joins a military expedition into Mexico. After Comanche warriors bring that expedition to a hideous end, The Kid is recruited into a gang of hired guns who earn their living collecting Indian scalps. The gang’s psychopathic leader Glanton, his ear-less subordinate Toadvine and their almost shamanic guide The Judge are unforgettable monsters. Not for the fainthearted, Blood Meridian is an unflinching reappraisal of American history.

Butcher's Crossing

The 2013 re-publication of John Williams’ 1965 novel Stoner prompted gushing reviews. It’s a taut and moving campus novel from the heyday of campus novels.

Butcher’s Crossing could hardly be more different. It’s set in the 1870s, at the tail end of the Wild West era. Will Andrews has left Harvard and set out for Colorado to find his ‘unalterable self.’ All he actually finds is a depressed little town—‘camp’ might be more accurate—called Butcher’s Crossing, and a chance to make some money. A veteran frontiersman, Miller, has spotted a herd of buffalo, one of the last still remaining on the Plains, and he’s planning an expedition to collect their skins. Anyone who joins the expedition could make their fortune. If they survive.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James is one of the West’s legendary figures. He honed the skills of ambush, sabotage and murder as a guerrilla fighter for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and when the South was defeated he went into business for himself. His notorious gang of outlaws robbed banks and trains, and for years managed to elude law enforcement. Already a celebrity in his lifetime, James’s mythic status was secured when a member of his own gang, Robert Ford, shot him in the bank and claimed the bounty on his head.

Hansen imagines these events in lush detail. James emerges as a troubled and charismatic figure, a forerunner of the modern celebrity, and the story of his demise is powered by Ford’s complex feelings of jealousy and hero-worship. A gripping story of the Wild West, The Assassination of Jesse James is also a sophisticated investigation into the history of American myth-making.

Close Range

Proulx is best known for her multi-award-winning novel The Shipping News. It’s a story about a wild landscape, and a man who learns strength and independence by living there.

Close Range is about the still wilder landscape of upland Wyoming. In each of its stories, the ordinary people of the contemporary West—rodeo riders and cowboys, waitresses and gas station attendants—push their lives up steep and barren uphill gradients. There is a great deal of strength and independence, but there’s also an unromantic harshness.

The standout story in the collection is Brokeback Mountain, made famous by Ang Lee’s 2005 movie. It concerns two men, Ennis and Jack, who meet when they are hired to share the job of minding a flock of sheep through the Wyoming summer. They fall passionately in love, but separate when the summer ends. They each marry women, and although they continue to meet throughout their lives, homophobia both external and internal keeps them apart.

God's Country

Everett is one of the most innovative American novelists working today, and God’s Country, his eighth novel (he’s also extremely prolific), is no exception.

It’s 1871, and Curt Marder has lost his wife and his dog to ‘Injun impersonators.’ In order to bring the villains to justice he sets aside his own prejudices and hires a black man, Bubba, the finest tracker in the West. What follows is a satire of the Western genre by turns hilarious and brutal. General Custer shows up and goes on a ‘killin’ drunk’ with his men. Marder gets buried up to his neck in the desert and passes the time chatting to his horse. An innocent black teenager is lynched.

After everything they’ve seen together, there’s just one thing Marder wants Bubba to tell him. ‘Man, it’s 1871. Ain’t you people ever gonna forget about that slavery stuff?’

The answer, unsurprisingly, is no.

I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.