So if you’ve been keeping track of my reviews, you’re probably thinking to yourself right now: “What, a Western? Doesn’t that break the pattern a little bit?”
Okay, so it goes like this:
I’m part of a writer’s group that meets at the local library. And we critique each others’ work. A consistent criticism I got back when I submitted my latest story, a Weird West yarn, was that it was too high fantasy, and not enough Western, in its tone. One of my friends suggested that I should read some Westerns to try to capture that feel. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I read one — I think I may still have been a teenager — so I figured that was a good idea. I marched downstairs and near the bathrooms, the library puts out the pocket books they’re purging because they’re too damaged or because they have too many copies, which they sell to the library clients for 25 cents each. I grabbed the first Western I found — it might have been a Longarm, I really didn’t care — and I paid for it and left.
But, I figured I had heard of this author but had not read any of his material, so I thought he’d be a good idea to start with to see how Westerns had changed since I last read one. Fortunately for me, this book happened to be by William W. Johnstone and his nephew, who are fine writers with a lot of talent and a deft skill applied to this genre.
I read a lot of Westerns when I was in high school. I read a metric crapton of Louis L’Amour, for example; and I think I watched just about every spaghetti Western ever made at my Mormon friend’s house. I suppose that might sound odd from me, since I read mostly sci-fi/fantasy. But perhaps it will give you some insight when I explain that my second-favourite genre is historical fiction adventure. I’m a dedicated fan of Patrick O’Brian, for example. I guess I just like stories about regular people dealing with exotic situations, is what it comes down to.
So what do I look for in a story? I look for likable characters that I can believe in, well-realized in a setting that breathes. I never want to ask myself, “Well, why the hell did he do that?” I want the character to be so real to me that I understand his motivations instantly, and if I don’t, I want it to be because the viewpoint character doesn’t understand, not because the writer doesn’t make it clear to me.
No worries here. Johnstone’s bounty hunter is a “ride-into-the-sunset” cowboy with a touch of PTSD from the Civil War that keeps him from settling down; but like any good Western protagonist, he keeps to his own code even at great cost to himself, and does what is right, not what is legal (necessarily) or what’s expected of him.
There’s a lot of good old-fashioned Western cliches in this story. The Spirited Dame (who is actually very well realized; you cannot accuse Johnstone of the sexism that permeates the work of many of his predecessors), the Sheriff Who Dislikes the Hero, the Evil Big Rancher, and so forth. But it works. And it works well. And to some degree, we like the predictability of it. As I recently observed on my blog, pulp fiction may be making a comeback, and the age of “grim-for-grim’s-sake-because-grim-is-sophisticated” may be over. The world gives us enough to be grim about. I want to believe that the good guy is going to win for a few hours!
Quite enjoyable, read quickly, and reminded me of everything I liked about the Western genre. I have already sought out more books by Johnstone. If you’re looking for a good example of a well-written Western, you’ve found it here. If you like the genre, or you wanted to give it a try but didn’t know where to start, I recommend it strongly.