From The Virginian to Zane Grey -- all the way to that tireless scribe and salesman Louis L'Amour -- paperback Westerns and their authors once ruled the range. In 1958, Western tales accounted for more than one-third of all paperback book sales in the United States, and fully one-third of all feature films. Western paperbacks were even wildly popular in Finland. But around 1970, Western books and films dropped off a cliff. Today, Western sections in bookstores -- if they exist at all -- are usually dominated by L'Amour reprints and series Westerns like The Trailsman, about to roll out its 314th volume of unintentionally hilarious sex scenes and pulpy prose ("Terror was his midwife, vengeance his first cry ..."). New writers in the genre are scarce, and usually underplayed.
What happened to the Western? Maybe it was wounded by overexposure, or by urbanization, or by the final, total death of the frontier. Maybe readers finally got sick of all those backward portrayals of women and Native Americans, and the romanticized views of frontier life. Whatever the root cause, it appears that contemporary writers have left the Western for dead.
But not so fast, pardner. Like any shrewd outlaw, the Western has gone underground, taking on new disguises. It's infiltrated other genres and spawned clever parodies.
Russell Davis, an editor of Western fiction and a longtime observer of the genre, says that the Western originally had a "very packaged definition" as a story that took place west of the Mississippi between the Civil War and 1900. Younger writers expanded this tightly bound genre to include other time periods, other countries, and even other galaxies, as the Western themes of unexplored landscapes and principled struggle wandered into sci-fi (the Star Trek TV series, Davis points out, was originally pitched as "Wagon Train to the Stars"). So yes, the Annie Proulx story Brokeback Mountain is a Western. And though the thought might well start Edward Abbey spinning in his grave, Cactus Ed is, by this more current definition, a writer of Westerns.
So is mystery writer Steve Hockensmith. His new and entertaining Holmes on the Range series is set in the 1890s, in Montana and elsewhere in the West. (Its second entry, On the Wrong Track, was published by St. Martin's Minotaur in January.) The Holmes series stars the orphaned Amlingmeyer brothers, itinerant ranch hands with a penchant for sleuthing. Gustav, the elder, is a fan of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and, with his younger brother Otto's reluctant help, applies the detective's "deducifyin'" methods to ranch-house murders and railroad holdups. In the Holmes on the Range books, as in any good Western, trail smarts beat out a college education, and the working fellow wins the day, if not always the girl. But Hockensmith also has fun sending up the genre, genially inflating stereotypes until they burst with absurdity, and letting Otto narrate with a witty and knowing voice. It's not a conventional Western, but as one character tells Otto, "Change was coming anyway. You and your brother simply ... herded it along."
A more traditional new offering in the Western genre is Lost Trails, a short-story anthology published by Pinnacle Books and edited by Martin Greenberg and Russell Davis. Though L'Amour still posthumously tops the list of contributors, most of the writers are living, and many are young up-and-comers. But in Lost Trails, too, some of the most entertaining stories are parodies of Western myths. Writer John Duncklee sends Billy the Kid to Dartmouth, where he lives out an alternative future as a scholar of English literature, and Johnny Boggs imagines The Cody War, in which Buffalo Bill's wife Louisa finally gets to tell her wayward husband exactly what she thinks of him.
The Western survives, then, though so broadly defined that it seems ready to break camp, following Larry McMurtry and others out of that narrow corner of the bookstore and into the shelves of fiction and literature. That might not be such a bad thing. Whether or not the genre itself persists, there will likely always be Western writers eager to examine the landscape and its history. The suffering and violence and complicated heroism of the frontier will always absorb readers, and will always, at some level, influence the identity of the West, no matter where the stories are shelved. As these rewired Western tales suggest, the black hat/white hat conventions of the genre may become less a distinct literary form and more something for writers to tear down and rebuild.
But L'Amour and his traditional compadres -- along with Western feature films, which continue to be made and remade -- can still tell Westerners something about who they think they are, and that's worth understanding, too. For if we know the myths, we can practice what Western historian Patricia Limerick likes to call "myth management," in which the frontier values of individualism and persistence are corralled into the service of shockingly modern causes like, say, energy efficiency. The Cowboy Way, like it or not, lives on. We might as well give it a job to do.
The author is a High Country News contributing editor.