Universal Themes

This 'Best of the West' collection doesn't feel very Western

There's a disconnect between the foreword to this new collection of short stories and the stories themselves. They're not contradictory or incompatible; they're just ... oddly disparate. The foreword introduces one brand of Western writing, but the stories prove to be quite another.

Nineteen pieces were selected for this year's Best of the West. Editors James Thomas and D. Seth Horton don't provide selection criteria, but the stories are all set in the West or were written by Westerners. (Interestingly, some writers live east of the Missouri.) The writers are diverse, their experience ranging from "emerging" to "established." The writing is contemporary, relationship-based, character-driven, polished and ironic.

The foreword, however, written by novelist and Western literature professor Kent Meyers, reflects the historical West—expansive, action-driven, in large conflict. The foreword, too, is literary/scholarly, but it describes a literature bigger, messier and riskier than most of the stories.

With one or two exceptions, there are no traditional Western outlaws or heroes—no Jesse Jameses or Han Solos, as cited by Meyers—in these stories. Death is a recurring theme, but not as a result of action; it's more an underlying presence. The protagonists lack power; they are working-class or middle-class folks whom life has happened to, not people out there forging new lives for themselves.

You want to smack Tucsonan Aurelie Sheehan's central character and her pretty, vacant, single-mom face, for example, as she shows herself powerless to resist flipping her hair toward one more bad guy (the frustrating "Gentle Future"). You want to color in the witness to a murder in Daniel Orozco's "Only Connect" as she gradually fades from society.

Deb Olin Unferth provides double-whammy powerlessness in her quirky, entertaining "Wait Till You See Me Dance," featuring a single female protagonist who's also an adjunct writing instructor. Regarding a gifted foreign student in danger of deportation, however, this adjunct does step up ... just as she's stepped upon.

Most affecting of all the pieces in the collection are those featuring children. Rick Bass sucks the reader right into the longing and fears of a 10-year-old boy in his exquisitely wrought "Fish Story." Themes of loss, memory, fortune and the interrelatedness of living things emerge in this tale of life passing.

Two of the most emotionally powerful stories in the collection have both children and death at their core. In "How to Love a Woman With No Legs," Natalie Diaz evokes the love, yearning, devotion and innocent physical fascinations of another 10-year-old, who is attending to her dying grandmother. Writing in the imperative, Diaz creates a lyrical incantation of narrative and memory: "Commit to it," she writes, "like you have something to prove. ... Rage against her impending departure. ... Listen to her stories. ... Speak to her in the mix of Mojave and English that is her language. ... Dream about her scars. ... When she falls asleep, open her fridge and stack the vials of insulin in the butter shelf. Eat all the sugar-free Jell-O."

The second of these two is also the closest to the Western tradition described in the foreword. In William Kittredge's 1940s-set "Stone Boat," a ranch boy prepares to help control 1,200 head of skittish cattle. His father has been killed in the war, and his grandfather has committed suicide. The boy fears the cattle will stampede and scatter through woods, and he dreads riding his horse through "timber." Long a master of Western fiction, Kittredge creates a gem in this very short story about death, loss and confronting danger.

Stylistically, most of these pieces are told conventionally, but a couple of them are experimental. One is the smart, tongue-in-cheek "The Desert: A Field Guide," by Dina Guidubaldi. In it, Guidubaldi buries her narrative of marriage dissolution behind a 10-step process analysis. ("9. When someone who has the desert in them leaves you for good, they scatter dust, and that's an easy way to tell.")

Whether it's just this particular selection of stories or a demonstrable trend, you can sense a teetering in characteristic literary regionalism in Best of the West 2010. There's less rugged individualist, less outlaw. Although there's the traditional struggle with nature, the collection is marked by more universal than regional qualities. Relief—if not redemption—is attained by simple survival. The Huck Finn in these stories doesn't strike out on his own, but he does make do. And he's a contemporary American, not notably a Westerner.

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