To celebrate the summer of 2018, we are pleased to present an ongoing series of reading recommendations/reminiscences by Goose Lane authors past and present.
Today: Ian Weir (The Death and Life of Strother Purcell)
This is not shaping up as a summer of diligent, intensely focused summer reading at my house. Tell the truth, the last summer that did was a good few years ago. Like — oh, say — 1982.
That was the summer that began with an exciting package confirming my acceptance into a U.K. graduate program in Middle English Language and Literature, with a hand-written note from the head of the department expressing her hope that my Old English was up to scratch “as you will need it for your studies in paleography.”
My Old English was not up to scratch. Pausing briefly to look up paleography in the dictionary, I proceeded to spend the summer working desperately through Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, with Quirk and Wrenn’s An Old English Grammar on one side of the beach blanket and Robert E. Diamond’s Old English Grammar and Reader on the other.
But on the whole, summer is much better suited to joyfully unfocused and eclectic reading. That’s where I am right now.
Just at the moment, I’m dividing my attentions between two vastly different novels. One is Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. Based in part on Craig’s own family — her mother was actually a Burmese beauty queen, as well as a revolutionary — it’s an epic that focuses the modern history of Burma (now Myanmar) through one family’s experience. Propulsive and brilliant, it also has much to illuminate (in this disconcerting summer of 2018) about the rise of populist authoritarians and the division of the world into Us and Not-Quite-Us.
The second is The Outsider, the latest from that Stephen King fella, with whom you may be familiar. I actually spent years resisting his bandwagon, for reasons that probably boiled down to a vague (Canadian) instinct to avoid encouraging Americans who are wildly successful already. Y’know, for their own good. But the sheer level of story-telling craft is exhilarating, as is the gradual elision from mystery-thriller into something altogether darker.
Next in my stack of summer reads is West of Here, by Jonathan Evison, is a one-time punk rocker who lives on the Olympic Peninsula and writes gloriously raucous and inventive fiction. West of Here isn’t his most recent, but it’s sort of a Western. And I love Westerns.
By remarkable coincidence, I’m also (cough) someone whose forthcoming novel is a sort of Revisionist Canadian Western, angled through the prism of a Southern Gothic revenge tragedy. And it goes without saying that Westerns are particularly well-suited to summertime reading.
So herewith a Summer Six-Pack of Recommended Western Reads. Only one of these is recent, and the list doesn’t include obvious titans of the genre – Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove novels, for instance, and (closer to home) Guy Vanderhaege’s The Englishman’s Boy, not to mention Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. These are just Westerns that you may not have read — and bear re-reading even if you have.
Deadwood, by Pete Dexter. No, not the HBO TV series, although it deals with the same core historical figures, albeit in wildly different ways. It features one of the best first sentences in Western literature: “The boy shot Wild Bill’s horse at dusk, while Bill was off in the bushes to relieve himself.”
Welcome to Hard Times, by E.L. Doctorow. An early outing, before Doctorow got really famous, and a bracing exploration of what is really liable to happen when you send a violent sociopath into a small frontier town where the locals have their Second Amendment Rights and not much else.
Butcher’s Crossing, by John Williams. The finest Western ever written that no one’s ever heard of. Imagine Zane Grey raised to the level of high literary art.
Warlock, by Oakley Hall. Hollywood turned it into a gunslinger-buddy-picture starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn. But the novel is a dark and brilliant deconstruction of the Good Man With A Gun trope.
The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. It was also adapted into pretty decent Hollywood movie also starring Henry Fonda. But the novel, an exploration of mob justice and the insidious momentum of populist sanctimony, reminds us that the Western (at its best) really could aspire to be the Frontier answer to Greek Tragedy.
About Ian Weir
Ian Weir is a playwright, screenwriter, TV showrunner, and novelist. His debut novel, Daniel O'Thunder, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book, as well as the Canadian Authors Association Award for fiction, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the amazon.ca First Novel Award. His second novel, Will Starling, was longlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award and shortlisted for the Sunburst Award. He has won two Geminis, four Leos, a Jessie and a Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award. His new novel, The Death and Life of Strother Purcell, will be published in September by Goose Lane Editions.