Friday, October 21, 2011

My Heart Rebels and Longs for Vast, Open Fields

Today, there is no perfect western.

That’s a shame, because that is what this blog is for.  Any media, cross genre, out seeking the perfect western.  Lately I am having trouble finding anything that engages me. 

I blame the mountains.  Two weeks of hiking in Utah has ruined me for the virtual experience rather than the visceral one.  I don’t want to watch, I want to do.  I don’t want to be served, I want to create.  I don’t want to let the news tell me what’s happening, I want to go to Wall Street and see for myself.  I don’t want to read Batman comics, I want to be wrapped up in a Poison Ivy plot.

There just doesn’t seem to be magic today in the words on the page or the motions on the screen.  I keep ranging about looking for something that can take me back to a high, dry place in the hours between work and sleep and am coming up short.  My own novel lies untouched for weeks, yet my masterful article on financing safety technology for concrete pumpers (from my day job) is the talk of the office.  Truth be told, I have no idea what a concrete pumper is.

A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West has been sitting nearly finished on my book shelf for several years.  Many years ago I gave a copy of The Big Sky to my father, an avid reader of Bernard DeVoto’s histories, and suggested that we read The Big Sky together.  I had no idea what an emotional trainwreck reading that novel would be.  The story of Boone, a not too intelligent, overly violent man and his quest to find peace in the mountains ends in a series of tragedies and disasters.  My father read The Big Sky, then its next five sequels (including the Way West) within a month.  He sent me his copies and told me to keep up.

When I finally slogged my way through the beautiful but tragic language of The Big Sky I set out to read The Way West.  While The Big Sky’s narrator was little more than rage barely restrained, Dick Summers of The Way West swims in a constant tide of melancholy and introspection.  As he travels by wagon train over lands he rode as a mountain man he laments the passing of his old world, where adventure and danger lay in every pass, where the attentions of young native women were easily had, where every daybreak was golden and every breath magnificent. 

Of course Guthrie won a Pulitzer for The Way West.  Who doesn’t feel that way?  In the history Greek Adventure: Lord Byron and Other Eccentrics in the War of Independence, there is a line that says men are often drawn to lands where they were young and successful.  Thus for me England, Scotland, the Rockies, are part of the sad dream of the past that Dick Summers sees riding through the plains. Knowing that The Big Sky ends in a series of tragedies I have never had the guts to see what happens to Dick Summers in the last pages of The Way West.

Where westerns are failing me lately, my mind returns again and again to a single line from a comic book with the unlikely title of G.I. Joe: Cobra Special #1- “I’m a veteran businessman, but my heart rebels and longs for vast, open fields.”  Nothing else in this world sums it up better.

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