New West, Next West
by Peter Soliunas
The New West is one of the easiest default settings for contemporary American fiction. Start with a dissolute or desperate main character and throw him down in an urbanized, or, better still, suburbanized landscape. Add a little Western scenery - mountains and rivers, just out of reach - but focus on the housing developments and soccer fields that have replaced the ranches and farms. For emphasis, add an older character of deeper moral stature to represent the dying aspects of the Real West. It's a good formula, and it has produced some great literature, including Thomas McGuane's The Cadence of Grass and Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Both are fine novels, but both share a reactionary disdain for the New West. Everything was better in the past, and sympathy is reserved for the old - old men, old trucks, the Old West. Last Call, the debut collection by Colorado writer Blair Oliver, reads like an extended meditation in response to this attitude. Things may not have been that much better in the old days, Oliver suggests. Besides, we still have to live now.
Oliver uses elements of New West fiction, but he skews them, reversing the sympathies. His main characters are dissolute and desperate men who do terrible things. The narrator of "Treats" hits a cat with his motorcycle, then can't finish off the suffering animal. In "Fragile," a new homeowner, stuck in one of those New West suburbs and plagued by his own incompetence, contemplates adultery when he suspects that his wife wants out of their marriage. Add pet-napping, drug smuggling and petty theft, and it becomes clear that these are not good men. But Oliver refuses to dismiss his modern-day rogues. In fact, he respects them and their cloddish steps toward grace. The cat killer in "Treats" admits to being a coward and a bad husband, but longs desperately to be a good father. His deepest fear is failing his daughter. "I wondered if Emily knew. I wondered if she knew our conversation, our tears, were more painful than the death of all strays. Someday she would know that."
Oliver's men share two key traits: a fear of failure and the primal knowledge that all their failures have consequences. The narrator in "Blackbird," slowly drifting away from his wife, is compelled to save his children "from all of us." In "Snow Globe," a man takes his son with him as he tries to purchase absolution for old sins, only to learn, bluntly, that absolution is neither cheap nor easy. "I'm not a man you can bribe," says one intended recipient of his guilt-driven generosity.
In the New West of McCarthy and McGuane, old sheriffs and ranch hands look at the present with barely veiled disdain. In Last Call, contemporary fathers look to the future, hoping the sins of their past haven't already damned their children. New West fiction makes an icon of the past while Oliver considers what's to come; perhaps he's the Next West.
141 pages, softcover, $15.99.
World Audience Inc., 2007.© High Country News