Sunday, April 30, 2006

Narrating the West

Before I launch into The Virginian, I want to get out of the way that I have nothing against westerns. I loved watching Lone Ranger reruns when I was a kid and grew up on a steady diet of Bonanza. I've been to the Alamo and the O.K. Corral. Since I grew up in Southern California, I was raised on stories of the gold rush in school and have even been to Sutter's Mill. We had Western Days--school wide events when everyone dressed like cowboys. And complaints from the public and cattle ranchers over use and management of Bureau of Land Management land was frequently in the news. I tell you all that because when I say I didn't like The Virginian I don't want to be accused of being prejudiced against the western genre. I must admit, however, that the reality of the west has long ago replaced the romance of it so it is difficult to go along with the mythic status bestowed upon the character of the Virginian. Nonetheless, it is not the mythic aspect that I didn't like about the book--westerns require heroes and the Virginian is perfect: a manly man, good looking, the strong, silent type, but smart. What ruined it for me is the way in which the story is told. Wister chose to use a first person narrator in the form of a tenderfoot from the east. In and of itself, this could have been a good decision, using the outsider's eye to see things an insider might not. But our nameless narrator is not always present in the story. He comes and goes but the story continues on with the Virginian. At first I though Wister was being clever, switching points of view ala Margaret Atwood, but it quickly became clear that the reader was to continue believing the eastern tenderfoot was still narrating. This wouldn't have been so bad if we weren't treated to information that the first person narrator, not even present, would never know. It's as if Wister couldn't make up his mind what kind of narrator he wanted and so created a first person omniscient one. It could have worked if Wister had established how the narrator came upon his information--we know he is looking back and telling the story, but this is not sufficient to create omniscient credibility. So as the "I" of the narrator came and went throughout the story, it only served to point out the incongruity of it. Something else that didn't work: the story is being told in the past tense, it already happened. Not wrong in itself. But with all the information the narrator has, he still doesn't tell you the most important things. There is quite a bit of foreshadowing early on, hints about how the Virginian's encounter at cards with Trampas will come back to haunt him, but we never really get to be privy to the building up of the hatred. We don't know until close to the end what happened at the card table and even when we find out it still isn't really clear. After that we get glimpses now and then of the dislike between the men--the party to welcome Molly, the trip with the cattle to Chicago--but for me none of it served to build any tension. Then when we get to Trampas' challenge to the Virginian to get out of town, when the tension should finally be building up, we are suddenly tossed into Trampas' head where we learn that he is having doubts and wishing he hadn't done what he did. It blows everything because you know right then that the Virginian is going to win. A mythic hero like the Virginian requires a mythic villain, and Wister doesn't manage to create one; we only get a regular "bad guy." What I can say good about the book is that Wister is pretty good with the descriptions and metaphors. Early on when the narrator first arrives in Medicine Bow, we are treated to this:

Town, as they call it, pleased me the less, the longer I saw it. But until our language stretches itself and takes in a new word of closer fit, town will have to do for the name of such a place as was Medicine Bow. I have seen and slept in many like it since. Scattered wide, they littered the frontier from the Columbus to the Rio Grande, from the Missouri to the Sierras. They lay stark, dotted over a planet of treeless dust, like soiled packs of cards. Each was similar to the next, as one old five-spot of clubs resembles another.
It's passages like this that keep the book from being a total washout. That and the humor. From the Virginian's wry wit to the story about Emily the hen to some situational amusement (switching the babies at the party for example), the book is full of humor. Unfortunately, the good things are not enough to compensate for the bad things. Still, I'm not sorry to have read the book. For all of its faults, it is still regarded as a classic of American literature and the ur-text of the western genre. This post will also appear at Metaxucafe where you are welcome to come join in or follow along with the forum discussion (forum link to follow shortly). Update. Forum discussion here