Thursday, March 18, 2010

Oakley Hall, Warlock (1958)

Yes, it's true, you read me like a book of matches: the only reason I read this novel was because it has Thomas Pynchon's imprimatur. I kinda suspect that nowadays, that's the reason most people read it, who read it. It's not especially reminiscent of anything Pynchon would write, except perhaps in terms of the obliqueness of some of the characterizations. Then again, probably--what?--a fourth of Against the Day could fairly be called a western, so maybe it works out.

Anyway, I'm glad I read Warlock. It's a very deft, subtle deconstruction of American mythology. Skeletally, the plot could hardly be simpler: the citizens of a town (Warlock) in a fictionalized region of Arizona are tired of all the cattle rustlin' and gunfightin' going on, so they band together and hire a legendary lawman, Clay Blaisedell, to restore some law'n'order. Sound like a pretty standard plot for a western, does it not?

Well, things don't turn out as you'd expect. We slowly come to realize that the cattle rustlers in question--the ones stirring up all the trouble in the first place--are kind of beside the point, to wit: to what extent is the town willing to accept the kind of mythic frontier justice they thought they were buying into when they hired Blaisedell, and is this "justice" even remotely plausible in any case? One problem that the townspeople face is that they're not actually incorporated, and thus don't really have all the rights of representation that they ought to have as US citizens, so on the one hand, they're gravitating towards civilization--they want to live (though they certainly don't consciously think along those lines) in the kind of place where dime novel Wild West heroics are obsolete--and on the other, those very heroics are ever-present, both as a kind of reality and as an conception of the world that is pretty firmly entrenched in everyone's minds. Where do you go from there?

Blaisedell isn't really the main character; he remains pretty opaque throughout (not really in the same sense as Brackett Omensetter, but I wouldn't curse you to hell for making the comparison). Instead, we have John Gannon, a former rustler who, shaken up after having been involved in a massacre, quits the gang and becomes deputy marshall in the town (because it's not exactly an in-demand position). Naturally, we have here a perfect image of torn loyalties, especially since his brother is still on the other side. Gannon's commitment to something like civilization makes people admire and hate him in turn; he embodies everyone's hopes and insecurities. This is complicated even more by the presence of Kate Dollar, a former prostitute come to town to wreak vengeance on Blaisedell for allegedly killing her fiancé. She has the most affectless romance (if you can even call it that) ever with Gannon, who is--as you can imagine--put in an exceedingly difficult position here. Although their relationship isn't much (and I'm afraid that by calling it that I'm making it sound like more than it is), it's still the novel's emotional center.

Another subplot involves the efforts of the miners working in the area to unionize (okay, come to think of it, this part is pretty obviously influential on late Pynchon), and once again, we're forced to face up to the question of how we want to live, since the need to organize to become effective flies in the face of the individualistic spirit of both the western and of America (as it conceives itself) in general.

I should at least say a few words about the novel's villain, Tom Morgan, but he's a tantalizingly hard character to pin down--a friend of Blaisedell, Kate's former lover, he's pretty darned fascinating. Undoubtedly, he is an evil man, but not "evil" in the sort of witlessly absolute, unfathomable way you'd see were this a Cormac McCarthy novel, and not wholly unsympathetic--he's all too human, and his suffering and jealousy and doubt are all too real. An actual, honest-to-goodness antihero if ever there were one. If this were a typical western, he would be a typical badman, but that is a counterfactual. Getting to the bottom of his motivations is not easy, but his scenes, especially with Kate, are frequently mesmerizing; certainly some of the most indelible writing in the book.

Anyway, I don't want to get too deep into spoiler territory--as you'd expect, things go all pear-shaped, and we are made to see that the contradictions between how we see ourselves and who we are are simply too great for us to bear. I should make it clear that the novel isn't unambiguously in favor of civilization as embodied by the US government, either; the mine boss is a tyrant if ever there were one, and the governor of the territory is a senile old man lost in dreams of past glories of killing Mexicans. Hall refuses to make things easy or provide straightforward answers, and that's a good part of why this is such a great book (one could certainly say a few words about how our conception of ourselves, as outlined herein, is THE operating principle in US politics, for better or for worse (actually, always for worse), but this is long enough as it is).

One caveat, though: the brief afterward, which helpfully reveals WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: it's awful. Completely artistically unjustified. I can't believe Hall would have slipped up like that. It completely takes the wind out of what had been a pretty darned resonant ending. I know if you read that far, you're not gonna want to stop, but I feel like I should at least warn you. Now you have no one to blame but yourself.


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