A Western state of mind

 

Best of the West 2009: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri
Edited by James Thomas and D. Seth Horton
286 pages, softcover: $19.95.
University of Texas Press, 2009.

This impressive anthology of contemporary short fiction grounded in the American West showcases 18 stories from emerging writers and literary stars, selected from publications as diverse as The New Yorker and Hayden's Ferry Review.

Part of the pleasure in reading it arises from reflecting on what "The West" really means. What characterizes a Western story, beyond simply being set in the vast and varied lands west of the Missouri River? In their introduction, editors James Thomas and D. Seth Horton thoughtfully observe that "the West is as much a state of mind as a geographic region." And author Rick Bass asks in his foreword, "Is it my imagination, or are there extra teaspoonfuls of loneliness in these stories, extra pinches of desperation?"

Well, no, it's not his imagination. Many of these stories are inhabited by outsiders, rebels and misfits, living on the edge, clinging to it by their fingernails and sometimes losing their grip. Characters are skillfully captured without sliding into hero-or-villain caricatures, like the people in "all those TV Westerns where heroes drew first and bad guys died without bleeding," as Ferrell says in Mitch Wieland's story, The Bones of Hagerman. They linger in the mind long after the book is finished. Witness Dagoberto Gilb's innocent aspiring car salesman, Lee K. Abbott's sensitive, half-heartedly suicidal drunk, and Ernest J. Finney's well-meaning illegal alien Raul, who ignores his uncle's advice to "Use your head, not your huevos." Antonya Nelson's protagonist David is cunning — but not cunning enough — in her breathtakingly twisting "Or Else," and Don Waters' degenerate missionary is a lost soul spreading the word for the Mormons simply because they returned his call before the Jehovah's Witnesses did. The lead character in Annie Proulx's gleefully creepy "The Sagebrush Kid" is not even human at all.

Many stories evoke the frontier spirit with little sign of the modern West — no shiny Las Vegas casinos, Dallas fund-raisers or Hollywood glitz. A few are set in the past, others resonate with it or evoke a sense of legendary timelessness. Nearly a quarter mention the Bureau of Land Management, itself a clue to Western concerns, although Wieland's character Ferrell "cringes whenever the term management is used with nature."

No single story can convey the complexities of either the real or the mythical West. But this anthology brims with wit, grit and tenderness, hopes fulfilled or dashed, and sheer survival-of-the-fittest endurance. These are substantial and satisfying stories, written in prose as muscular as the land they describe.

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