So here are three (3!) thematically-related recommendations. Even if you are NOT thinking about long open prairie vistas, inscrutable cattle, honest ponies, and other essential ranch bric-a-brac, I have some good books here.
Stories about the American West never really fall out of fashion. The genre has been going strong for a century and more. And by genre, I mean those kinds of books Papa Joe was always happy to find in his Recorded Books packages from the library: straightforward tales where the reader knows what to expect. There will be good guys, bad guys, horses, handguns, a conflict somebody is likely to win. The lone hero loping through the saguaro cactus and purple sage in search of revenge? Yup. Masters of the genre include Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, and more recently, Elmer Kelton.
Though the following three books share some Western elements -- roving the open range, for instance -- these books do not fall in inside the boundaries of genre. They are not predictable, not straightforward, and not forgettable.
Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories
by Annie Proulx
The first story, "The Hellhole" starts:
"On a November day Wyoming Game & Fish Warden Creel Zumundzinski was making his way down the Pinchbutt drainage thorough the thickening light of late afternoon. The last pieces of sunlight lathered his red-whiskered face with splashes of fire."
Goodreads link here.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
opens with the story, "Every Little Hurricane:"
"Although it was winter, the nearest ocean four hundred miles away, and the Tribal Weatherman asleep because of boredom, a hurricane dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare."
Goodreads link here.
All the Pretty Horses
by Cormac McCarthy
"The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his dark suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so paley from their waisted cutglass vase."
Goodreads link here.
She's written three wide-ranging collections of Wyoming stories in recent years. Each of her story collections is great.
Get this book, Bad Dirt, and put it in your car. Trust me, next time you are stuck in a waiting room, turn to one of Proulx stories -- these quick, searing sketches make a perfect short, smartening read instead of a round of whatever electronic distraction is sapping the strength these days.
Carmac McCarthy is widely praised as one of the greatest living American novelists -- a fact that, shamefully, rouses my prejudice against the traditional white lions of American letters: John Updike, Joseph Heller, and Philip Roth are among the writers I should probably admire more, but don't. Despite the hype, Carmac McCarthy's work, including recent award-winners No Country for Old Men and the post-Apocalyptic The Road, earn the praise honestly.
I like this earlier novel. It seems marginally less bleak -- as I read it -- than his later work. All the Pretty Horses (the name comes from the traditional lullaby) follows young John Grady Cole across the border to Mexico. It takes place around 1950, past the classic heyday of the cowboy, but the boy sets out for his adventure, his horse, and his heartbreak. Standard-enough sounding plot, but the writing--!
McCarthy is not afraid to throw it out there in ways that break all kinds of writing rules:
"They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing."
Don't try writing that at home, kids. But do read it.
"It's hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don't wonder if it's half filled or half empty. They just hope it's good beer. Still, Indians have a way of surviving. But it's almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins."
Not a reader? (Okay, what the hecky-doodle are you reading this blog entry for? Extra points? Seriously?) Try the movie.
Alexie, who is engaging, funny, telegenic, and clearly quite comfortable in the 21st Century (far more than Proulx or McCarthy-- his website and plenty of Youtube video as evidence) made one of the stories in Lone Ranger and Tonto into a lovely independent film called Smoke Signals. If it's not in your Netflix queue already, branch out a little already.