Archive for May, 2009

May 28, 2009

Denis Johnson's Land; or, The West of "Nobody Move"

by cowboylands

The cover of Denis Johnson’s new novel Nobody Move screams KITSCHPULPNOIR with red and yellow letters and bullet holes spangling the jacket.

Famously serialized in Playboy, the story has plenty to like, or plenty to dislike, depending on how cooked you like your femme fatales, gun-toting heavies, and convoluted plots. I take mine hard as nails, so I count myself a fan.

Nobody Move is set in the American West, but it’s not the Pioneer West, the Cowboy West, Deadwood West, or even Polanski’s Chinatown West, although that comes close. It’s set in a nowhere-ville around Bakersfield, California, a locale that is promptly forgotten the moment you’ve driven through it. He’s too good a writer to write for the sake of convenience (he’s probably very familiar with the Interstate highways of California). His choice is unusual.

Ever since Chandler, noir is as soaked in California sun as it is in New York City smog. It would be fair to assume that the action would take place in the seediness of Los Angeles, or even Las Vegas’s garishness. Instead, the protagonists linger at the Feather River and drive toward the Mojave desert and past swaths of agribusiness crops. They shoot each other at rest stops, hide in culverts below a highway, and hole up in a ramshackle restaurant/camp in the mountains, the kind usually frequented by transient bikers. It is not a West made glamorous by the Coen Brothers or Tarantino. He chose a West that is forgettable. He chose brilliantly.

Both Western films and novels usually begin with a view of the land, an Alpha* that, at the story arc’s end, is matched by an Omega, an end that is a beginning. 

Owen Wister describes The Virginian‘s vista as a “land without evil, a space across which Noah and Adam might come straight from Genesis.” Shane begins with a sweep of Edenic mountains, which is broken by the entrance of a rider, Shane himself. At the end of Westerns, the rider disappears again into the vista, or breaks from it, sinking into the world of civilization, leaving the wilderness as vast and unsullied as before. 

The majestic and stark land of the West is code for the asceticism of the Western hero: Be hard. Be awe-inspiring. Be rugged. Within the arms of this landscape, he becomes even more heroic, and he knows it. He is devoted to the power of the land, and desires this power. This is the real romance of the Western.

The authors and directors of the genre understand this: Ford’s Monument Valley and Zane Grey’s Colorado River are as iconic as their stars. Their camera or words on a page travel over bluffs and along wide rivers, tracking the hero’s progress through the landscape and providing an almost tactile sensation of experience, which viewers and readers crave. The land is everything, both the “destination and the way.” 


What is the land of Nobody Move?

It’s a region where fields are laced with pesticides. Where waters are siphoned off to fill the swimming pools of Los Angeles. Where gold mines spew poison. Where empty tract homes wait blankly for bankrupt owners to return. If anyone actually gazes at the landscape, it is only to toss an empty Coke can out the car window. It’s a “through place”–not a destination. It’s a commodity or a product, to be used and tossed when it is spent. His land is code for the throw-away manner Jimmy Luntz, Gambol, Anita Desilvera, and Juarez talk, have sex, drink, and die, and for their hard little nuggets of desperation and want that they discover and hoard.  

In Johnson’s world, human beings have used up their Eden.

The protagonists neither seek to become “one with the West,” nor strive to differentiate themselves from it. The desert, the riverbank, the mountain roads are present only to be used and manipulated by humans. There is little tactile experience for the reader–the land passes by as removed as if the reader is riding in an air-conditioned car.

The river, a potent symbol is mentioned early and often, and appears and reappears at nodal points in the story. However, it is ghostly and blurred–more like the River Acheron, for which the ancient Greek souls needed a guide to cross into Hades, than a physical (and wet) presence. 

There is one moment when the land appears fully with scent, color, and sensation–the horrific and darkly funny burial scene. Two characters wrestle a bloody corpse into the ground and are marked with its gore and mud. The only time that a human being becomes one with the land is when that character–one of the more humane ones–must be literally forced into it, dead. 

What is brilliant about Johnson’s choice is how he continues the genre’s movement away from the idyllic frontier of early westerns, and the recent troubled and tragic landscapes of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men.  

His land is not the End All and Be All. It is not the snake that troubled Eden. His is a land that is spent and used, forgotten and kicked aside. It is a vacuum of moral indifference and blighted progress. And like the landscape in all good Westerns, it is code to what we are as human beings–what we came from, what we are, and what we desire to be. Ouch. 


OK, I can’t end like that! That realization won’t keep me from rereading Nobody Move. It’s dark and fast-paced and noir to the core. And you get a kind of a riding-off-into=the-sunset bit, except without the sunset. 

*I am indebted to Jane Tompkins’s West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns.


May 16, 2009

Mojave Desert Dream

by cowboylands

The wash of wind. The flat land stretching to the mountains. Sunset. 

Heavy work week. Nephew in trouble and I can’t do anything about it. No time to write. Barely keeping relationships intact. And then I dream. I dream of: 


May 7, 2009

I Told You So; or, Republicans Aren't Cowboys

by cowboylands

Rugged individualism takes you far, especially if you’re a misanthrope. For the rest of us, it’s helpful to be nice to the neighbors, to let in the ConEd man to check the meter, and to obey street signs.

What has gotten my goat since Day One of Politics with the Sore-Loser Republican Party is how unobservant they seem to be. I know about having to use one-liners that make a statement at the expense of nuance (see Exhibit A: the first line of the post) but how is it possible that so many ultra-conservatives use the power of the Cowboy myth so poorly? The daily comparisons to Americans and cowboys have diminished, but many Republicans and conservative pundits are still compelled to evoke sweeping open spaces where your spirit can blow free (I want to know: does it get as tangled as hair does? Cuz that sux).

That open space is still the West of the imagination, because it seems that ultra-conservatives can only think in terms of the past, and the frontier of the late 1800s (you know the one–in which many native Americans were bullied, cheated, and killed to get their land?) And the hero of that open space is the cowboy. Not the common cowhand but the uncommon gunfighter. And not Billy the Kid but celluloid gunslingers, who have really great lines and are lit from attractive angles. 

My whole take is that what keeps getting referred to is a fictive device kind of region, not the real down-and-dirty and totally awesome and scary and fantastic Western states. And lo, I find a smooth-shaven white man who can not only talk the political talk, but has also seen his western movies and actually observed. 

May 4th was my birthday (yippie-yi-ki-yay!) and the day when David Brooks, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, described what many classic westerns portray, and it isn’t the shoot-from-the-hip crap. For a full read, click here.

Republicans generally like Westerns. They generally admire John Wayne-style heroes who are rugged, individualistic and brave. They like leaders — from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush to Palin — who play up their Western heritage. Republicans like the way Westerns seem to celebrate their core themes — freedom, individualism, opportunity and moral clarity.


But the greatest of all Western directors, John Ford, actually used Westerns to tell a different story. Ford’s movies didn’t really celebrate the rugged individual. They celebrated civic order.


For example, in Ford’s 1946 movie, “My Darling Clementine,” Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp, the marshal who tamed Tombstone. But the movie isn’t really about the gunfight and the lone bravery of a heroic man. It’s about how decent people build a town. Much of the movie is about how the townsfolk put up a church, hire a teacher, enjoy Shakespeare, get a surgeon and work to improve their manners.


The movie, in other words, is really about religion, education, science, culture, etiquette and rule of law — the pillars of community. In Ford’s movie, as in real life, the story of Western settlement is the story of community-building. Instead of celebrating untrammeled freedom and the lone pioneer, Ford’s movies dwell affectionately on the social customs that Americans cherish — the gatherings at the local barbershop and the church social, the gossip with the cop and the bartender and the hotel clerk.


Today, if Republicans had learned the right lessons from the Westerns, or at least John Ford Westerns, they would not be the party of untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice. They would once again be the party of community and civic order.

God bless those who can refer to the themes of My Darling Clementine. Maybe we are a bunch of cowboys. In the best possible way.