Man with No Name Found; or, How I Came to Love "Butcher's Crossing"

by cowboylands

Used to prop up many a political point, the Cowboy Hero risks being seen only as a monolithic feature on the American landscape, like those iconic buttes and pinnacles in Monument Valley.* Connoisseurs of westerns know that the Cowboy Hero splinters into impressively variegated types, such as bounty hunters, cowboys (from Jack Elam to Gene Autry), gunfighters, cavalrymen, Indian fighters, Indian lovers, lawmen, mountain men, outlaws…and that’s not including the shadings that anyone of the female persuasion or non-white ethnic affiliation will bring to these roles….

One of the most evocative Cowboy types is the Loner, who rides down from the mountains without name and without past. Like Shane or the Man with No Name, he may become embroiled in civilization’s convoluted coils for a little while, but sooner or later he drifts back into the Wilderness, essentially unchanged and unwilling/unable to change.

 

copyright 2008 es

The Loner variations share a Certain Something that common folk—the movie townspeople, the pioneering farmers, and well, most Americans in the sage-colored recesses of their psyches—venerate and aspire to achieve. They are Other, a bit supernatural. Without past or future they are removed from the travails and annoyances of day-to-day existence, and have only the moment to be fully engaged in.

Whether the Man with No Name, this Other, was created or born was always a question for me. In real life, leaving behind family, friends, home, and one’s prior self doesn’t always lead to mastery—in fact, a loner can be wracked with doubt, loathing, and shame, even if overlain with excitement for adventure or fear of discovery.

And then I read Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, originally published in 1960, but republished in 2007. In the last pages I found an answer. (No, I hadn’t heard of the book either; a friend bought it for me, after she saw a review on the back cover: “One of the finest novels of the West ever to come out of the West”—a mighty tall order.)

I was skeptical, at first. It starts with a young Will Andrews who Goes-West-Young-Man, from Harvard to a Kansas town hip-deep in the blood of buffalo hunting. He uses much of his inheritance to bankroll a quixotic buffalo expedition deep into the Colorado Rockies. He wants the usual adventure,  and also to test himself against the knife-edge of the West. What transpires is harrowing, and when I read about his emergence from the wilderness to find both himself and the world changed, and then his subsequent actions, it struck me that Will Andrews, Dude from the East, had turned into the Man with No Name. It was the Prequel I had always wanted to discover.

Many characters in the novel experienced what the protagonist had but remained, in the end, merely day-to-day players—albeit compassionately sketched. Will Andrews was the one who, brimming with horror at what he and the world were, turned to the emptiness of the Wilderness to obliterate what he could not bear, becoming nameless, past-less, future-less, but not soul-less. Tempered into the Other, swaying in his saddle and drifting, having lost more than he gained.

He knew that he would not go back. He would not return…to his home, to the country that had given him birth, had raised him in the shape he occupied and the condition that he had only begun to recognize, and that had relinquished him to a wilderness in which he had thought to find a truer shape of himself. No, he would never return. –Butcher’s Crossing, John Williams. 2007

 

*well worth the time to visit this Navajo Nation tribal park, and while your car is spinning its tires in the soft red dust of the scenic drive, know that you’re not only having a Cowboy Moment in a John Ford western, you’re in a place that is actually called Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii.

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  1. Please do make suggestions in comments or through contact info above. tx, bucko.

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