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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    TRANSPORTATION PLANNER Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the...
  • EARNED MEDIA MANAGER WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...