Nov 12, 2009

“Once Upon a Time”, in the West

For our first selection of 2010, I’ve picked four lesser-known authors. Each is a “writers’ writer” and a personal “desert island” choice (if I could only own a few books). They’re very different guys but would’ve had a lot to talk about over beers. Two of these writers are known for their humor. Three are mostly bald; one has a suspicious comb-over. Although most write about a wide variety of topics, I’ve picked one book from each that is set in the American West, and one each from the late 1960’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Two are regional history and travel narratives, while two are genre fiction grounded in specific places and eras.

Great Plains, by Ian Frazier. 320 pages, originally published in 1989. Winner of the Western Writers of America “Spur” award for non-fiction. Frazier himself has won the Thurber Award for American Humor twice, including this year.

Ian Frazier alternates between straight non-fiction and humor pieces, and he may be the one writer on this list that you’ve heard of, since his work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.

His interests range from the last typewriter repair shop in New York ( ) to the near-biblical struggle to raise young children ( ).

Publisher description of the book: “With his unique blend of intrepidity, tongue-in-cheek humor, and wide-eyed wonder, Ian Frazier takes us on a journey of more than 25,000 miles up and down and across the vast and myth-inspiring Great Plains. A travelogue, a work of scholarship, and a western adventure, Great Plains….is an expedition that reveals the heart of the American West.”

Newsweek: “Although [his book] is about America, it is most emphatically not one of those ego-driven travel diaries into the soul of a nation....Frazier is a great storyteller, and he tells stories here about the waves of migration over the Plains, about Indian tribes, about war-makers and moneymakers, about local heroes and national villains. Everywhere, he treats the land and its stories as gifts to be shared, a kind of potluck to which we're all invited."

Seattle Times: “Frazier's account of three summers that he spent on the wide open spaces between the Rockies and 100th meridian is a rhapsodic hymn, a joyful salute to ‘a sheet Americans screened their dreams on for a while and then largely forgot about.’”

Pros: Always fun to read, interesting but not pedantic. Cons: Can be a little digressive.

True Grit, by Charles Portis. 224 pages, originally published in 1968. No awards, unless you count John Wayne’s 1969 Oscar, but, please, ignore that movie when deciding about this book.

Charles Portis has only written five novels in 40 years, but two of them are considered American classics. True Grit, his second, is considered his most accessible.

Publisher’s Summary: “True Grit… tells the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas, who sets out in the winter of eighteen seventy-something to avenge the murder of her father,... [convincing] one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshall, to tag along with her. As Mattie outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten types in her path, as her performance under fire makes them eat their words, her indestructible vitality and harsh innocence by turns amuse, horrify, and touch the reader….True Grit is eccentric, cool, straight, and unflinching, like Mattie herself, who tells the story a half-century later in a voice that sounds strong and sure enough to outlast us all.”

Newsday: “True Grit flirts with myth and tall tale, but reading it is like encountering a voice speaking to us directly from America's past. Mattie at times seems less a character than a fact, the fact of what pioneer life was - hardship and sorrow and mortal danger - accepted with no expectation of sympathy…. True Grit is a great American novel waiting to be rediscovered.”

Donna Tartt, in her foreword to the new edition: “[T]here are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart,…that we press on all our friends and acquaintances ….Most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece.…

I cannot think of… any novel… which is so delightful to so many disparate groups and literary tastes…. Like Huckleberry FinnTrue Grit is a monologue, and the great, abiding pleasure of it that compels the reader to return to it again and again is Mattie's voice. No living Southern writer captures the spoken idioms of the South as artfully as Portis does; but though in all his novels (including those set in the current day) Portis shows his deep understanding of place, True Grit also masters the more complicated subtleties of time.”

The Believer: “[A] western that both satisfies and subverts the genre…. When Roy Blount, Jr., says that Portis ‘could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny,’ he may be both remembering and forgetting True Grit, which for all its high spirits is organized along a blood meridian, fraught with ominous slaughter.”

Pros: Easy to read, short, slyly funny, great history. Cons: Protagonist is a 14-year-old girl – one who could kick your ass.

Bad Land, by Jonathan Raban. 384 pages, originally published in 1996. National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, a New York Times top 10 best book of the year.

Jonathan Raban is a transplanted Englishman, now living in Seattle, who has written several books about his explorations of various parts of America (piloting small boats the length of the Mississippi and along Alaska’s Inside Passage, living for months at a time in the deep South, etc.). He’s known for both literary criticism and travel narratives. While he often makes you smile, he’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny.

Bad Land is the depressed twin of Great Plains. It focuses on just one place, and it tells a pretty grim story.

Publishers Weekly: “Raban…has written a vivid and utterly idiosyncratic social history of the homesteading movement in eastern Montana that went boom and bust during the first three decades of this century. Lured by free land from the government and a deceptive publicity campaign mounted by the local railroad, thousands from all over the eastern United States and northern Europe went to Montana to make their fortune as farmers. He examines the literature that lured them there and the how-to books they read once they arrived.… This seemingly informal yet careful blend of chronicle and personal reportage is social history at its best.”

New York Times: “Early in this century open land in the West still seemed to cry out…to what Jonathan Raban identifies as ‘the intense, adhesive attraction of self to soil.’ In one of the most illuminating books written about rural America in many years, Mr. Raban…shows us how the towns and farms of eastern Montana were settled - and later unsettled, when reality shattered the dreams…..[H]is imaginative reach recaptures the momentum of the settlers' migration, and their idealism, not only from official records, newspapers and memoirs, but even from schoolbooks of the age….In Bad Land we find an affectionate reasonableness about this bewildering nation that reminds us how much it is always nourished by the hopes of immigrants.”

Kirkus Reviews: “Raban skillfully evokes the landscape's stark immensity...., produc[ing] a startling revision of traditional Western myth: not the hopeful cowboys and farmers so often found in children's school primers, but solitaries, religious zealots, and even sociopaths. In Randy Weaver, Theodore Kaczynski, and Timothy McVeigh, Raban discovers spiritual descendants of the homesteaders in ‘their resentment of government, their notion of property rights, their harping on self-sufficiency, and self-defense, [and] in their sense of enraged Scriptural entitlement.’ A powerful, grim new slant on those who took the way west - and of the terrible consequences when their dreams curdled and died.”

Pros: Raban is a pleasure to read, with insights and great sentences on every page. Cons: This is ultimately a downer of a story, letting some air out of the balloon that is the American dream.

The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley. 244 pages, originally published in 1978. Independent Mystery Booksellers Association 100 favorite mysteries of the 20th century.

Like Charles Portis, James Crumley went for long stretches without publishing anything, producing only nine books before he died last year. His later books were of uneven quality. But his third, The Last Good Kiss, written in 1978, is considered by many to be the best hardboiled detective novel of the last 40 years, maybe the best ever. If you like mystery fiction and haven’t heard of this one, go read it, whether we pick it or not.

Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, etc.: “Some of the most beautiful prose in any language or genre dances across its pages. It's funny. Deeply humane. An homage to both The Long Goodbye and On the Road,…it's an ode to the American road and American West, a love song to drinking, screwing, roadside motels, big old automobiles and dive bars. It's the best novel ever written about the '70s.

‘It’ is The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley and while it may have a peer or two, it has no better. In telling the story of CW Sughrue, a big-hearted, road-worn shamble of a PI, who goes looking for a ten-years-gone runaway named Betty Sue Flowers, Crumley leads us into an entire generation's search for Home, as the hopes of the 60’s have been replaced by the bottomless hangover of the late 70s….

The experience of reading The Last Good Kiss is both exhilarating and increasingly deceptive. It starts out like a road novel and seems to amble quite by accident into classic noir territory …. With each curve in the road, … the book morphs yet again, this time into a smart and resonant meditation on the ways in which men's idealized visions of women thwart any ability to truly see them.”

One of the best first sentences ever: “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”

Frances M. Nevins, top mystery reviewer: “[O]n the basis of just three novels, James Crumley has become the foremost living writer of private-eye fiction.… His principal setting is not the big city, as in Hammett and Chandler, nor the affluent suburbs, as in Macdonald, but the wilderness and bleak magnificence of western Montana. His prevailing mood is a wacked out empathy with dopers, dropouts, losers, and loonies….

[He]has minimal interest in plot and even less in explanations, but he’s so uncannily skillful with character, language, relationship, and incident that he can afford to throw structure overboard. His books are an accumulation of small, crazy encounters, full of confusion and muddle, disorder and despair, graphic violence and sweetly casual sex, coke snorting and alcohol guzzling, mountain snowscapes and roadside bars. What one remembers from The Last Good Kiss is the alcoholic bulldog and the emotionally flayed women and the loneliness and guilt.”

Pros: Over-the-top hardboiled storyline, with more twists than you can count. Vivid capturing of road trips, bars, the 1970’s. Cons: Plot can get out of control. Melodramatically messed-up characters. Even more of a downer than Bad Land. If you don’t like the genre, you’ll hate the book.


  1. Six Degrees of Separation -

    Page 87 of Ian Frazier's Great Plains: "Just outside the town of Holcomb, in western Kansas, I pulled into the driveway of the house where the Herb Clutter family was murdered one night in 1959....The history of this house makes everything look different, it makes warm afternoon sunshine into the flash of a police photographer's camera."

    Ian Frazier on Charles Portis: "I admire something like Charles Portis's True Grit -- or Huckleberry Finn -- because it is a voice all the way through, but it doesn't get tiring."

    Ian Frazier on Jonathan Raban: "Because Mr. Raban is both English and a marvelous observer, he sees aspects of the Plains invisible to the native-born. At once expansive and intimate, Bad Land is a valuable addition to the literature of the West."

    Jonathan Raban on James Crumley: "How, I wanted to know, had Missoula, this mountain mill town of 43,000 people (about half the size of Barnsley), managed to establish itself as a national literary asylum?....If Jim Crumley was here, he'd say it was because writers need to live in deep, smelly places. Missoula's on the bottom of a prehistoric lake that used to go all the way to Spokane.

    Missoula's genius loci - at least in the writing line - was Richard Hugo....He was a beloved drinking buddy and fishing buddy; an accessible teacher who showed that the most ramshackle life was fit material for poetry....I sat on a rock and read the beginning of James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss, in which Richard Hugo appears under the nom de guerre of Abraham Trahearne, poet and drinker."

  2. This is way too coincidental, Tom. Did you really select these writers independently or did you cull them from an advance reading of Great Plains? Hmmm...I guess you couldn't have done so with Capote.

  3. Selecting any one of these books will not leave you disappointed.

    The Great Apes did Bad Land a few years back and mostly liked it. Too much Brit in some spots, but maybe that's what gives a new look at the plains life.

    A few Apes knew Crumley personally from tending bar at the Charco-Broiler where he sat and wrote or from classes he taught at CO State. He can be really convoluted, but he is always worthwhile.

    I know Frazier from On the Rez and all of his work that appears in the NYer. If any of you guys want a taste of his work before deciding on Great Plains or not, check out his two part travel story about Siberia from in June or July '09 issues.

    Think about a joint Apes-MBC meeting sometime soon. We've got a few guys ready for a road trip! What's halfway between Ft Collins and Marin County?

    Read on!

  4. What, Jeff, no comment about Charles Portis or True Grit? Clearly you are virtually illiterate. OK, just kidding - it's great that you can endorse 3 out of the 4 books. Have you ever had that hit rate on our selections before?

    That's pretty cool that some of you guys knew Crumley (and took classes from him?). He was a bar legend all over the country. There's a great photo of him closing down a joint in San Francisco with Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, and some other just-getting-started-but-soon-to-hit-it-big authors. I myself never would have been capable of hanging out with him.

    Halfway between Fort Collins and Marin would be Great Basin National Park. Not sure you'd get a lot of takers. Slightly north would be lovely Wendover, Utah. Slightly south would be Zion National Park. That's the winner, but still, all that way just to see a few apes? You may need to send pictures to help us decide.

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  6. Great post, I am almost 100% in agreement with you