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
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • 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...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • 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,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: