Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Western Fiction

By Dick Holland

AUGUST 7, 2000: 

Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West: 1950 to the Present edited by Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster), 414 pp., $26

This anthology of short fiction set in the West is something of a mess, but it does have one thing going for it -- Larry McMurtry's unrelenting push to demythologize the region. Much of McMurtry's reputation as a clear-eyed Western realist has its origin in his writing on Richard Avedon's 1985 photographic blockbuster In the American West for Texas Monthly. In a piece that raised hackles among many readers, McMurtry fully endorsed Avedon's brutal and blunt photographs of laid-off cowboys, hopeless waitresses, and dangerous-looking drifters, suggesting that the West, which used to foster heroic exploration and tragic racial conflict, now engenders something else entirely: losers living off the land.

This hard vision informs several of the choices in Still Wild; they make it almost worth the price of admission. The strongest story in Still Wild by a long shot is Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain." This story about a decades-long love affair between two working Wyoming cowboys was the set-piece in Proulx's acclaimed 1999 collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a book that most buyers of this volume are likely to have already read. Once beyond the shock value of the explicit love scenes, the perfect-pitch dialogue and psychological exploration of two working-class married men with children whose love for each other matters more than anything is convincing and wittily written:

The horses nickered in the darkness beyond the fire's circle of light. Ennis put his arm around Jack, pulled him close, said he saw his girls about once a month, Alma Jr. a shy seventeen-year-old with his beanpole length, Francine a little live wire. Jack slid his cold hand between Ennis's legs, said he was worried about his boy who was, no doubt, dyslexic or something, couldn't get anything right, fifteen years old and couldn't hardly read, he could see it though goddamn Lureen wouldn't admit to it and pretended the kid was O.K., refused to get any bitchin kind a help about it. He didn't know what the fuck the answer was. Lureen had the money and called the shots.

"I used a want a boy for a kid," said Ennis, undoing buttons, "but just got little girls."

"I didn't want none a either kind," said Jack. "But fuck-all has worked the way I wanted."

The most emotionally affecting piece in the book is Jack Kerouac's wonderful "The Mexican Girl," a sort of Down-and-Out in L.A. and the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s. Although the story is part of On the Road and has been anthologized before in this form, it is good to see it and be reminded of Kerouac's beautifully transparent prose:

We went back and picked up Terry and the others and wailed to Fresno in the highway lights of night. We were all raving hungry. We bounced over the railroad tracks and hit the wild streets of Fresno Mextown. Strange Chinamen hung out of windows digging the Sunday night streets; groups of Mex chicks swaggered around in slacks, mambo blazed from jukeboxes; the lights were festooned around like Halloween. We went into a restaurant and had tacos and mashed pinto beans rolled in tortillas; it was delicious. I whipped out my last shining four dollars and change which stood between me and the Atlantic shore and paid for the lot. Now I had three bucks. Terry and I looked at each other. "Where we going to sleep tonight baby?"

Texas writers are well-represented in the book, with contributions by Max Apple, Rick Bass, Dagoberto Gilb, William Hauptmann, Dave Hickey, and Dao Strom. Of these, it is Apple and Hauptman who provide the book's strongest comedic pieces. Hauptman's story "Good Rockin' Tonight," from his collection of the same title, is a rollicking road story about the rise and fall of a North Texas Elvis impersonator told by his brother, a Wichita Falls gynecologist. Bass' story "Mahatma Joe" from his 1994 book Platte River, comes across as a little garrulous and mannered to those of us who thought his first book of stories, The Watch, was just about perfect. Gilb's contribution, "Romero's Shirt," is a reminder of how finely modulated his 1993 collection The Magic of Blood is.

In addition to Kerouac and Proulx, the other high-profile writers included in Still Wild are Wallace Stegner (McMurtry's writing teacher at Stanford), Tom McGuane (McMurtry's classmate at Stanford), Raymond Carver, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, and William H. Gass. This list of notables and their entries in Still Wild highlights one of the book's serious flaws: a general lack of imagination in the selection of the writers and then, once chosen, work that has either been overexposed or that is far from their best. Reading Carver's ineptly minimalist "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off" from Where I'm Calling From, raises questions about not only Carver's reputation but also about McMurtry's concept. On a technical note, part of the standard apparatus for an anthology of this sort is missing: a contributor's section so that we can learn more about the writers and the range of their work.

The regionalization of American writing has resulted in some excellent compilations of fiction and nonfiction that have customarily served to introduce new talent that may have a less-than-national literary reputation. Much of the work in Still Wild is quite old, and the only really new writers are Jon Billman, Mark Jude Poirier, and Austin resident Strom. Of these, Poirier's "Cul-de-sacs" is an astute portrait of suburbs in the Nineties, and Strom's prize-winning story "Chickens" is a chilling vignette about a Vietnamese family's accommodation to living among Texas rednecks.

Second-guessing a collection of this sort is almost too easy to do, but here is a list of names that are not included, writers who in many ways define what we think about the modern West: William Kittredge, James Crumley, Denis Johnson, Frank Waters, Paul Horgan, Terry Southern, James Welch, Gary Soto, Rick DeMarinis, and Ken Kesey. Missing Texas writers whose voices are redolent with Western authority include John Graves, Sarah Bird, Carolyn Osborn, Pat Littledog, James Lee Burke, and Miles Wilson. Given the possible richness, McMurtry's selections feel both hurried and lazy.

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