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Days of Heaven – II

In Ashcroft I often went to Frank’s New and Used, an old wooden building that had once been the town’s opera house. I liked to step out of the hot sunlight into the cooler darkness that smelled of dust and burlap and look at the Westerns.

The other pocketbooks went for a quarter. But the Westerns were sold for seventy-five cents. Dozens of them were stacked on the old wooden planks. Their covers showed lean-jawed men in dark clothes down on one knee fanning a gun, or else riding a horse with a rifle out. I liked their titles: Hondo, The Tall Stranger, Ride the River, Showdown at Yellow Butte. And I liked their violence.

In Louis L’Amour’s Hondo, for instance, I read a number of pertinent passages one hot afternoon sitting on the verandah of the Ashcroft Motel. Out in the parking lot a short, fat man in a high-crowned cowboy hat and wearing jeans that showed his socks shouted to his girlfriend: “That goddamn Joe! I told him he’s gotta get out! Of course he feels lonely! Sittin there all day watching them soaps! He’s addicted to that junk!”

Grinning at this, I marked a passage that still has the ring from my pop bottle on it:

Turning swiftly, Hondo kicked the gun from Lowe’s hand, then he grabbed him by the shirt front and jerked him to his feet. Hondo smashed a right into Lowe’s stomach, then shoved him away and hit him in the face with both hands. Lowe lunged, swinging, but Hondo knocked down Lowe’s right and crossed over his left. Lowe staggered and Hondo walked in….Hondo slapped him. It was a powerful, brutal slap that jarred Lowe to his heels and turned him half around.

How this passage brings back the hot, easy days I spent that summer! The violence was risible, of course, as it always is in genre fiction; and I thought that for many readers this would make them close the book in distaste. I thought: Liberals don’t like this. But as the summer wore on and the pile of Westerns on my kitchen counter grew, I thought: No, they don’t dislike the genre’s violence; what irritates them is its innocence, or more exactly, that combination of violence and innocence which I now realized completely shaped the cowboy hero.

The covers of my books said it all. The cowboy was bound up with his world. He couldn’t be separated from it. He belonged to it as much as did the wolves and horses who shared it with him. Even his clothes showed this. Old and stale, they were faded to a neutral colour that lost itself against the dirt. When he drank from a spring he lay prone and lapped the water like an animal. And he came awake like an animal: at the slightest movement he went from sleep to full alertness, listening to the crunch of a twig or the taking of a breath.

More deeply, he resembled the land. As the writers put it, his face and body were as hard as the desert cliffs, he was as capable of violence as a sudden flash flood, and with his combination of tension and stillness he demanded study, and revealed sign, as much as did the wilderness landscape itself. (In Hondo, a shiny spot on Hondo’s jeans had told the woman observing him that Hondo must have worn two guns at one time.)

Above all, the cowboy was shaped by the hardness of his world. It could break his leg, drown him, or make him die of thirst. As the writers said, it was a “pitiless” world, one that maimed and killed, and that summer, reading, I again and again found this to be so.

Here lay a man who had just been shot off a cliff: in his fall he had broken so many bones he resided on the sharp rocks as askew as a cloth doll. Here sat a man on the ground holding a stomach wound grisly as a lithograph of war. And here was a rider, thrown off a horse, his foot still in the stirrup, being dragged along the ground until his head was torn half off.

And then there was Blood Meridian. The enormous power of that book took me aback. Some passages I read two or three times. Scene after scene presented in concentrated form what my other books only faintly evoked:

The…top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them. The shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand and the shapes of the men and their mounts advanced elongate before them like strands of the night from which they’d ridden, like tentacles to bind them to the darkness yet to come. They rode with their heads down, faceless under their hats, like an army asleep on the march. By midmorning another man had died and they lifted him from the wagon where he’d stained the sacks he’d lain among and buried him also and rode on.

But though the land was hard, it contained no evil. Evil existed only in men. In none of my Westerns did I detect a trace of that theological darkness that was associated with the landscapes of crime fiction and horror. The cowboy’s world was innocent. Even in Blood Meridian, where nature’s extremes were evoked with an intensity that made the book one of the five or six greatest novels of the twentieth century, it was innocent:

The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning.

And here, I realized, when I read this passage – in this innocence – I had come upon the single most important fact determining the Western’s effect, and the reason why I had felt so moved those first quiet afternoons in Ashcroft reading McCarthy.

More. I now understood why this brilliant writer had turned to the genre. I understood why Westerns at their best had the power of fairy tale and myth. And I knew why the cowboy story had permeated world culture. What other genre could attract the attention of both a six-year-old child and a seventy-year-old man? As I read I increasingly heard a note that brought to mind movies I had seen like Dersu Uzula and Days of Heaven, a note that in the darkest extremity calmly stated: This is how things are. Consider this, one of a dozen passages I marked that summer in McCarthy’s book:

On the day that followed they crossed a lake of gypsum so fine the ponies left no track upon it. The riders wore masks of bone-black smeared about their eyes and some had blacked the eyes of their horses. The sun reflected off the pan burned the undersides of their faces and shadow of horse and rider alike were painted upon the fine white powder in purest indigo. Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augured the earth and some said they’d heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang. Out of that whirlwind no voice spoke and the pilgrim lying in his broken bones might cry out and in his anguish he may rage, but rage at what?

The natural world in the Western was violent and innocent, and so was the hero who inhabited it.

That summer I became enamored of distance. I walked up into the hills and looked out sixty kilometers across Ashcroft and the mesas beyond. I drove to Kamloops and stared out across the desert landscape, and one afternoon I drove up into the Hat Creek Valley and with the sun shining on my face saw a curtain of rain fall across the air like black smoke a thousand meters away.

The cowboy hero, too, swam in distance. He had his being in a world of virtually limitless space, and this had an effect on who he was and what his actions amounted to that I sensed at once but for a long time found hard to pin down in words.

It amounted to this. All his actions – from rolling a cigarette to shooting a gun – had a ceremonial significance. They occurred in a world of silence and emptiness, a world in which very little happened from one hour to the next, and so they took on that almost ritualistic quality that marks anyone’s behavior – the behavior of an Inuit out hunting, for instance – when it appears drastically simplified in comparison to our own. Everything was stripped down and given a heroic, matter-of-fact resonance.

So that whatever the cowboy hero did it seemed elemental. Whether it was making a fire or killing a man, it had no ethical or moral implications. It was as if all that distance and silence swallowed up such implications, made them beside the point, as if the Western obeyed a law that said: Where there is distance there cannot be evil.

Every Western I read that summer carried this formula as its spine. In Hondo, Louis L’Amour had pointed to Hondo’s “buried core of tenderness.” But this core of tenderness – which I came to think of as the “truth” about the hero – only really showed itself in a setting of sky and distance. Seen in a crowded room, the cowboy appeared closed-in, even ordinary. But once he was on his horse and dwindling to a dot on the horizon, a grandeur attached to his image, as if the sky itself were memorializing him. Similarly, if the hero’s sidekick died, he was buried in the open and the earth’s long grass became his monument.

So that emotion, poetry and innocence were all communicated in the cowboy story in terms of space and distance. Evil, however, was always a matter of rooms, the smaller the more malevolent, manmade places where intimacy took on a hellish quality and the cowboy’s nature was forced to contract into something utterly unlike itself.

But here was the problem. All this was fine in the world of the cowboy story – but only in that world. Take the cowboy hero out of his appropriate surroundings, the liberal could say, and he became an eccentric: a hardbitten egotist, with an unbounded sense of his own worth and a complete inability to communicate with anyone who didn’t appreciate that worth.

Certainly he was innocent; but what did this innocence amount to? Only a kind of bon enfant brutality that everybody else was supposed to take into account and treat with respect. He was responsible only to himself, and if he stepped in and helped somebody out, it was because he perceived that person as weaker than himself and likely to brim with gratitude at what he’d done. When there were complications, he moved on. Everything that meant collective effort was beyond him, whether it was raising a family or becoming a member of a community. True, he had a “buried core of tenderness.” But the whole point about this buried core of tenderness was that it was buried. The cowboy demanded to be deciphered; he disliked talking about himself and in fact was incapable of doing so – he could only display himself. In intimate surroundings he fell back on a bundle of mannerisms – a way of touching his hat, a way of looking out the window – and it was the other person (the widow, the boy) who had to make the effort of communication. In the end he was vivacious only among people like himself, sidekicks who would respect his eccentricity and ask nothing of him that might impinge on his essential selfishness.

A disillusioned picture, this one. Yet it suggested something of what happened when the image of the cowboy was held up as a model for real life. It didn’t work. In contemporary urban life at any rate you couldn’t be innocent and violent at the same time without appearing like a kid, with all of the kid’s willful passivity, not to mention his baffled impulse toward tenderness and stony refusal to explain himself. If you remained adolescent into middle age you became a character, and I knew as a fact that the cowboy genre had started to break down when movies had started to appear in which the disillusioned fighter realized that he had become a character, a kind of Peter Pan with a gun who could only be a hero to some naive teenager who wanted to be just like him.

In earlier movies the faces and bearing of the actors – say, of Randolph Scott or John Wayne – had given them an automatic authority. But by the late sixties that authority had fallen apart. The Western was seized by an irresistable impulse to parody itself. Many factors contributed to this impulse – feminism was important, and so was a widespread disgust with individuals like U.S. general Curtis Lemay. But what they all had in common was a sense that the cowboy hero was fundamentally outdated. No one watched Gunsmoke anymore. Disney had stopped making movies in which dust appeared. The Western had slipped into the past.

Sometimes on a Saturday I’d see the older Ashcroft cowboys come down to the Safety Mart to shop. They’d limp from their trucks in the hot sun, their quilted vests accentuating their narrow old-man shoulders. Hips sore, they’d walk slowly along the sidewalk, solitary figures with gnarled hands. Native and white, leaning forward, their pale or dark eyes looked out from under their hatbrims. They were men who had lived their whole lives in poverty, and watching them I’d sometimes think: So these are the rednecks you hear about.

Was the cowboy story a redneck genre? Was it backward? Was its decline a “progressive” action, similar, say, to getting rid of dog fights or the hanging of criminals? Maybe so. But as the summer wore on, issues of this kind stopped interesting me. Instead I started to explore the two internal reasons that seemed to explain why Westerns were no longer read.

Genre fiction operated like fashion – it had to keep changing if it was to keep our interest. When we read genre fiction we were faithless, we followed our pleasure, just as we did when we looked at clothes. And we did so in both cases with the same eye for the often very minor novelty that excited and charmed.

But while other genres could change and stay interesting and alive because their “worlds” changed and remained alive – the “city” in detective stories, the “future” in science fiction – the world of the cowboy lay in the past, frozen. So that the genre couldn’t change, couldn’t develop, it seemed, except in the direction of parody.

Even more important was the fact that the Western could no longer express without parody a feeling for the awfulness and terror of violence. As a boy I had never thought of the cowboy hero as someone who threw his weight around. In the classic Western, only the villain did that. Yet increasingly this was how male heroes acted. Whether he was Steven Segal or a rap music thug, the hero loved to say “Fuck you,” loved to pull a gun from his jacket or kick out with a steel-toed boot.

And in comparison to his neon-lit menace, the Western hero could seem old. He existed in an innocent landscape of which he was part, and at the very least this slowed them down. You didn’t just think of the cowboy hero pulling out a gun. You also thought of him mending a boot as he sat tailor-fashion before a small fire, or else lying in his blankets with his saddle under his head, staring at the stars. Connected to childhood and the natural world in a way that the modern hero wasn’t, the cowboy’s reflectiveness was part of his dignity, and it drew its authority from the landscape through which he moved.

But now that landscape had altered – or more exactly, our perception of it had altered. And that summer I came to realize just how much this was so.

During my time in Ashcroft I was almost always happy. In a way that seemed uncanny, my childhood returned to me. Some mornings, waking to desert sun and a quiet outside that the voices of the old men on the verandah only deepened, a joy touched me that I hadn’t known in years.

Other times I felt more complicated emotions. One evening in late July, around nine p.m., the hot sun down and a softening darkness on the hills, I went into Tom’s Videos along with an older cowboy named Henry Akkatah.

We walked over to the Westerns. Henry looked through them. After a bit, slightly embarrassed, he said, “I don’t know why, but they don’t make em anymore like they used to.”

“Aw, Henry, don’t give up,” I said.

“I’m not givin up! Shit.”

“Okay, sorry. So what d’you wanna get?”

He shrugged and picked slowly through the boxes, not looking at me.

I picked out High Plains Drifter. “Well, what about this one. You seen it? It’s pretty good.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen it.” Henry picked up the box and looked at it. “I guess I could see it again.”

Outside night was in the air and the street was silent. As we walked back to the Motel I thought about Henry’s embarrassment.

I knew how he felt. Come across an old Western in a video store and it did seem embarrassing, even sad. And I realized, as we walked beside the Canadian Pacific tracks that night, that what had most doomed the genre wasn’t its structural limitation or its refusal of violence. What has most doomed it was the belated, post-World-War-Two euphoria that first swept across TV screens in the sixties. Combined with widescreen movies and the hedonistic intoxication of the period, this euphoria – and the Seinfeld irony it later turned into – had produced a new feeling in popular culture, one that made the fatalistic legends of the West seem outdated. Pushed aside by I Spy, the cowboy landscape had become a dustbowl that only the irrigation of colour and fun could restore to life. Nowadays a straight Western seemed claustrophobic; and so Henry, sitting in his motel room, could find images of the life he had lived only in barbecue sauce ads or reruns of City Slickers. “Nature, today, is the city,” Roland Barthes once wrote, and it seemed to me that night, thinking about the greatness of Blood Meridian and the way it has been received, that the decline of the cowboy story showed this as well as any other phenomenon.

This is the second of two parts

3204 words, June 8, 2004

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Bruce Serafin

Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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