Friday, September 9, 2016

Unlikely writers of westerns

Two weeks from today in Columbus, Mary Doria Russell will receive the Ohioana Award for Epitaph, her novel about the gunfight at O.K. Corral. Her previous novel, also highly regarded, was Doc, about the life of Doc Holliday. Several years ago, also in Columbus, I happened to be in the audience when Russell mentioned she was working on a book about Doc Holliday. The author of such novels as The Sparrow and A Thread of Grace certainly didn't seem like someone who would write a western.

When we think of fiction about the Old West, we probably think of people like Zane Gray, Louis L'Amour, Max Brand, Ralph Compton or, a personal favorite, Richard S. Wheeler. Yet it occurs to me that many of the most significant western novels have been written by outsiders, writers like Mary Doria Russell who did not specialize in western novels yet happened to write one that was very, very good.

Robert Lewis Taylor, author of The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, was a New Yorker writer who, among other books, wrote biographies of W.C. Fields and Winston Churchill.

Owen Wister wrote just one book about the West, but that one book was a classic, The Virginian.

Charles Portis wrote a number of novels, but none of the others was anything like True Grit.

Thomas Berger built a long career writing contemporary novels, yet his most notable work remains Little Big Man. Late in his career he tried to reclaim the magic with The Return of Little Big Man.

Brian Garfield is best remembered as a the author of the thriller Death Wish and its sequel Death Sentence, yet he wrote a number of westerns early in his career using various pseudonyms. Later he wrote the big western Wild Times, a novel I am currently rereading, under his own name.

Jane Smiley, like Mary Doria Russell, is hardly someone you would expect to write a western, yet her
1998 novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is a gem.

Even Larry McMurtry was not known as western writer until he won the Pulitzer Prize with Lonesome Dove. Since then he has written a number of other tales of the Old West, although contemporary fiction remains his first love.

Most bookstores have small sections devoted to western novels, but to locate some of the best books in that genre you may have to look in the general fiction area under such names as Thomas Berger, Larry McMurtry and Mary Doria Russell.

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