Posts tagged ‘the virginian’

June 3, 2009


by cowboylands

A Western definition:

Dude (dood) n.

Usually an Easterner, but it can be used to call anyone obviously unready for the West–such as if a person is wearing street shoes, too-fancy clothes, or unable to ride a horse or track game or make coffee in a tin can. A dude is usually mocked mercilessly (see The Virginian, by Owen Wister). A dude, however, can rise above his dudeness (see Theodore Roosevelt) and in fact, may bring other virtues to the word (see The Big Lebowski). 

Legends of America also describes it as originally, a word that means a boil on a tenderfoot’s backside, gotten after riding in a saddle all day for the first time. (I will now call any pimple I get “dude.”)

An example of how to use “dude” in a sentence:  

Savvy Westerners don’t walk through a clump of chollo cactus, much less ride through on an ATV. This dude should’ve ridden a horse–they can be smarter than their riders. 


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.


July 15, 2008

Westerns 101; or, What Owen Wister Gave the World

by cowboylands

Yesterday was Owen Wister’s birthday, the man who almost single-handedly created the Cowboy mythos. He’s both a masterful wordsmith and a cautionary example against using the Cowboy indiscriminately. 

Who the hell is Owen Wister? One of my favorite places on the Wild Western Web for all things Americana, The Library of Congress’s American Memory site describes him succinctly:Robert Vaughan copyright 2008 es

Novelist Owen Wister was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on July 14, 1860. His 1902 novel The Virginian helped create the myth of the American cowboy. Reared and educated on the east coast, Wister first visited the West in 1885. Set in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, The Virginian‘s tender romance between a refined Eastern schoolteacher and a rough-and-tumble cowhand, with its climactic pistol gunfight, introduced themes now standard to the American Western.

Simple. But anyone who has not read the book cannot conceive of the power of the Virginian and Molly, his schoolmarm. Their actions reverberate throughout literature of the West and the silver screen. 

The Virginian’s plot is fairly straightforward: woman meets man/man meets woman; woman conquers man; no, wait–man conquers woman!

We have in this scenario one of the major themes in all Westerns: civilization versus the wildness of the West, played out through a battle of the sexes.*

Owen Wister was a total Dude until he lived a while in Wyoming (the most Cowboy of states, I would argue, for good and bad). He found in the West what he could not find in his rather unhappy relationships with his parents—who either squelched his wish to become a musician (father) or relentlessly criticized him in the interest of helping him become the best he can be (mother). Wyoming allowed him to find himself, to put it in a clichéd sort of way. But he was the one who created that cliché, by moving his personal experience into words on the page. Then he got married, and by all accounts every day was a shootout for Mr. and Mrs. Wister, and more of the sniping kind than the romantic full-frontal confrontation….

The final shootout of The Virginian, Jane Tompkins argues in West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, has a two-fold climax: the Virginian takes on his enemy, and he disobeys the woman whom he loves. (She has told him that she will leave if he goes to battle.**) The enemy soon lies in the dirt, but Molly also flies into his arms. Why, he has succeeded both in becoming an individual by separating himself from this strong female figure, and by still keeping the female in his life! Amazing!

Wister’s life wasn’t quite that nicely wrapped up. (Westerns are part of the romance genre, after all.) He had a difficult relationship with his wife, and he never quite found the “self” he had while he was living alone in the West, just him and the other virile cowpokes.

His world of The Virginian and the successful shootout is just a romance, yet perhaps because its images contain the real frustration he felt, these images literally echo through the century, since 1902 repeated again and again in scripts and books until the real world and real people have taken on tinges of this romantic view.

But caution, caution. The author was doing what all authors do: working out his own fear and rage and love and horror with vivid characters and situations. Those who use the tough Cowboy—stoic, forthright, master of all he surveys—should know that…just perhaps…their motivations might mirror Owen Wister’s. Might they also have a little fear and rage and vulnerability inside?

*In this novel, it is described in a rather elevated tone that is like the ballads of the Court of Love of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Indeed, as mentioned by Jane Tompkins, Wister argued that the cowboy was directly descended from the Anglo-Saxon knights. (What happened to the Spanish knights, guy? And Saladin? And he must have forgotten that all the knightly tales of derring-do came from the mouths of women in the Court of Love, not the uncouth knights the women wanted to civilize.)

**Very un-Eleanor of Aquitaine of her.