Best Stories of the American West is a collection of Western stories in which gunfights are outnumbered by basketballs, and the cowboy hats end up mangled beyond recognition. In other words, it's not about the West as exemplified by John Wayne; it's about a place in which people actually live.
In compiling this first volume, series editor Marc Jaffe did something refreshing: He refused to define the West. His only requirement was that the stories take place in one of the 11 states in the region. Beyond that, anything goes. The result is 20 stories from 20 very different writers, some of them well-known (such as Sherman Alexie and William Kittredge), and others less so (like John Rember). The plots range from the scheming of Wyatt Earp to the secrets of flying an airplane in the Sawtooth Mountains. There are cowboys here, sure, but also bush pilots and fishermen, teachers and poorly trained paramedics, aged actors and 40-year-old basketball players.
Taken together, this hodgepodge of characters reminds us of just how diverse this region is. We meet people like Roy and Jacinto: Jacinto, a Filipino migrant worker toiling in California amid a sea of tomato plants, struggles to eke out enough money to go back home, while Roy, a rough-and-tumble Southwestern cowboy caught between tradition and change, finds himself glancing constantly over his shoulder at the encroachments of city life. These two characters represent two classic ways of seeing the West: Roy, the Gifford Pinchot ideal of land use and resource extraction; Jacinto, Ronald Takaki's view of an empire built largely on the exploitation of immigrants. Entire political programs could be constructed around these two figures, but in this volume they are simply people. They work. They struggle with loss. In terms of their humanity, they are equals.
Time after time, this collection reminds us that there is no easy way to live in the West. "They beat on you one way or the other," says Casey Mullins, an old man in a Hollywood nursing home who claims he was once the notorious bank robber John Dillinger. "The pride comes in how you stand up to it."
The Best Stories of the American West, Volume 1
Edited by Marc Jaffe
316 pages, hardcover: $25.95
Tor Books, 2007.