The Wild West revisited

Here lies Lester Moore,

Four slugs from a .44,

No Les, no more.

 * * *

Here lies George Johnson

Hanged by mistake

1882

He was right,

We was wrong,

But we strung him up

And now he’s gone.

Epitaphs from Tombstone’s Boothill Graveyard 

Despite the flippant wit of these epitaphs, Lester Moore was a real person killed in a brawl and George Johnson was wrongly accused and hanged for horse stealing in Tombstone, a silver boomtown in the Arizona Territory that came to epitomize the Wild West. The 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral put the town on the map when the Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday faced off with five of the Cochise County Cowboys, a gang of rustler-outlaws. In the 30-second fight, three Cowboys were killed and, of the lawmen, only Wyatt Earp came away unscathed.

In almost real time, yellow journalism and dime novels celebrated the fearless men who tamed the lawless town. And, as if America needed heroes to sanction its manifest destiny, or to assuage its conscience, the legend blossomed. Throughout the 20th Century countless books, movies and television shows recycled the incident, inflating the characters to mythic proportions.

By the 1950s, you would think the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was as played out as the mines around Tombstone. (The silver long gone, Tombstone nearly became a ghost town, only surviving as a tourist trap playing up its mythic past and marketing itself as “the town too tough to die.”) But a great novelist can always find new material in the timeworn. In capable hands, myth and cliché become fertile ground for reassessment, and in 1958 Oakley Hall did just that, writing the extraordinary novel Warlock.

Hall, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, taught creative writing at the University of California-Irvine for many years. With Warlock, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he became something of a cult figure for a younger generation of writers who admired the craftsmanship and epic proportions of this myth-busting novel. “One of our best American novels,” Thomas Pynchon claimed in a 1965 Holiday magazine article about his favorite neglected work of fiction. Fortunately, New York Review Books agreed with him and republished Warlock in 2006 with an introduction by another devotee, Robert Stone.

183199As a historical novel, Warlock does everything right. First, Hall made the smart decision to rename the town and the people involved. (Tombstone becomes Warlock, named after a local mine.) As Hall explained in his preface: “By combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.” In other words, he liberated the story from the exigencies of the historical record to probe the myth for its deeper, more resonant truths.

Second, instead of attempting to mimic the “old consciousness” that so often hampers historical fiction (see my recent post), Hall approached his subject with a modern sensibility and style. As Robert Stone writes in his introduction, “I remember thinking how wonderfully clear the book was. Not only clear, as I remember, but full of light. The sensation of reading back into time was very strong because the style made itself invisible as good style will when it is accomplishing its purpose.”

Hall did use the occasional archaic word, but it was always carefully chosen and deadly accurate. Even when writing in the voice of one of his characters, he maintained complete authorial control. Here is an example from the first page of the book, a journal entry of Henry Goodpasture, a prominent Warlock citizen, describing the recent turnover of the town’s deputies:

Canning was a good man, a decent man, an understandably prudent man, but an honorable one. He coped with our daily and nightly problems, with brawling, drunken miners, and with Cowboys who have an especial craving to ride a horse into a saloon, a Cyprian’s cubicle, or the billiard parlor, and shoot the chimneys out of the chandeliers.

That adroit use of “a Cyprian’s cubicle” as a euphemism for a prostitute’s room tells you all you need to know about the man writing this journal, and Hall’s choice of “chimneys” is a pitch-perfect detail that not only evokes the time period but assures you that you are in the hands of a master storyteller.

As befits its legendary subject, Warlock is an epic that uses multiple points of view to build perspective and tension. With the exception of Goodpasture’s journal entries, which serve as an intermittent Greek chorus, the book is written in the third person. The only main character whose point of view is not used is the Wyatt Earp-like marshal, Clay Blaisedell. By circling around the man, Hall pokes at the legend. Showing the gunfighter through the eyes of the town deputy, John Gannon, who is the real hero of this book, or the gambling saloon keeper Tom Morgan (the facsimile of “Doc” Holliday), or the Cowboy Curley Burne, or Kate Dollar, the woman who would like to see Blaisedell dead, Hall elevates the story to social criticism. And the moral questions he raises–about vigilantism and the imposition of law and order and its concomitant restriction of freedom–are as relevant today as they were in the mythic territory of Warlock. In the stark desert sunlight Hall distills the dilemmas of might versus right, of justice and the hypocrisy used to justify its abuse.

Hall’s focus is on the entire social milieu, not simply the famous incident in the corral, which occurs in the first third of the book. He is more interested in the consequences on citizens and gunmen alike. A miners’ dispute with mine owners over safety and wages plays as much a role in this novel as Cowboys and gunfights. The tenuous reach of the territorial government and the deployment of the military to quell the spiraling violence in Warlock come under Hall’s lens as much as the individual showdowns at high noon.

Oakley Hall’s novel is a thoughtful and thought-provoking western that has much in common with Walter Van-Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Like them, Warlock is a clear, finely crafted reassessment of how the West was won.

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10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reviews

10 responses to “The Wild West revisited

  1. ken erickson

    Reading this brings me as close as I have ever been to wanting to read a western novel.

    • Ken, you probably saw it all already in that B.C. mining town you grew up in. 🙂 Actually, I’d describe this as a historical novel that happens to take place in the West. It’s a great read. Happy real Thanksgiving to you!

  2. Westerns have never been something I have got into, apart from The Magnificent Seven, the overtones of The Dark Tower series and such like but I am probably due a reassessment and this is likely to do the trick. I am always appreciative of your picking of the fine books that I have usually not come across.

    • It is a western but it is also a fascinating social commentary. If you can’t walk the streets of Tombstone, this is the next best thing. Thanks for commenting. And happy Thanksgiving, even if it isn’t an English holiday!

  3. I swore I wouldn’t add anymore books to my to-read pile, but this sounds really awesome! I’ve stayed pretty far away from anything western due to the Texas background. For some reason I always had a fascination with Tombstone. Thanks for another neat recommendation!

    By the way, I spent the majority of Thanksgiving with Under the False Flag and plan to finish today. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, Tom. Really. So well written and interesting! I don’t know much about South American history, so I’m really getting into this.

    • Hi Britt, I’m delighted if this review has steered you toward Warlock. It is a great book for writers to read because the prose is so clear and understated. And the story is darn good too.

      As for my book, it must just be your reaction after plodding through Jane Eyre 😉 Seriously, thank you for reading it. Yours is still queued up, ready to go as soon as I finish Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s 800 pages!

  4. An absolutely captivating eview… Thanks for sharing, dear Tom. All the best to you. Aquileana 😀

  5. You gotta love those epitaphs. One ot my favorites is by Lord Byron:

    On Viscount Castlereagh:

    ‘Posterity will ne’er survey,
    A nobler grave than this:
    Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
    Stop, traveller, and piss.’

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