Clive Sinclair’s top 10 westerns

Alan Ladd in Shane

A wide range of stories … Alan Ladd in Shane.

Clive Sinclair is the author of several novels and short stories, as well as a collection of essays on “the facts of life and the facts of death”. Included in Granta’s original list of Best Young British Novelists, he has also received a Somerset Maugham Award, the Jewish Quarterly Prize and the Macmillan Silver Pen Award for Fiction. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he lives in St Albans. True Tales of the Wild West is published by Picador, priced £9.99.

1. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister

In the 1880s a weedy Easterner named Owen Wister had something like a nervous breakdown. Wyoming, with its wide-open spaces and healthy pursuits, was prescribed as a cure. Wister was immediately smitten by the taciturn cowboys and the rules imposed upon them by the cattle barons. Collecting his notes he produced the novel that is the western’s sine qua non. It was Gary Cooper, I think, who first spoke the immortal line on camera: “When you call me that, smile!” Researching for my own book I came upon the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, Wyoming, where I was shown the very room in which Wister composed a part of his masterpiece. Some claim it was the very room whither the Virginian repaired to claim his Molly after his climactic shoot-out with Trampas. A good corrective to Wister’s world view – in which the cattle barons (the “quality”) were born justified – is Michael Cimino’s unfairly vilified Heaven’s Gate.

2. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Although set on the eastern seaboard the story it tells, as its narrator himself observes, is really about the West. But that admission is not the primary reason for Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to be invited into the Western Hall of Fame; no, it has more to do with the metamorphosis of Jimmy Gatz into Jay Gatsby. The process begins in childhood (evidenced by a ragged old copy of a book called Hopalong Cassidy, into which Gatsby-to-be had inscribed a strict daily timetable, and a list of general resolves), and concludes when he meets a mentor surnamed Cody. The name of course is a signal. It broadcasts that Jay Gatsby reborn is a part of that line of self-made westerners that begins with the scout whose exploits reenacted thrilled the Crowned Heads of Europe; none other than Buffalo Bill Cody. On top of all that is the fact that the book concludes with the necessary shoot-out.

3. The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider

The title is a variation upon the one devised by Pat Garrett to tell the story of his dance of death with Billy the Kid. As well as changing the name of the protagonist, Neider altered the location from New Mexico to California. Hendry’s tale is narrated by an old compadre named Doc Baker, whose laconic voice persuades the reader that his descriptions of deed and landscape are indeed as authentic as promised. To add conviction, Neider rode for days on end through the canyons of California, wore a Colt .45 on his hip, and practised drawing the gun until his fingers bled. Marlon Brando wasn’t quite so bothered when he purchased the movie rights, changed the title to One-Eyed Jacks, and sacked Doc Baker. He took to wearing his pistol in a cummerbund. “What’s your opinion of that?” Neider was asked. “First time he’d draw that gun he’d blow his balls off,” he replied. Sam Peckinpah was the original screenwriter on the project. He called Neider “Master” and picked his brains. If you ask me, his subsequent version of the story owes a lot to Neider the Master.

4. True Grit by Charles Portis

One-eyed Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn is the role that finally delivered John Wayne his Oscar. But this is where the character began. Young Mattie Ross (aged 14), a girl blessed with precocious and ferocious pedantry, leaves her farm in Arkansas to avenge the murder of her father at the hands of a man named Chaney (a prescient touch that), and en route meets his one-eyed nemesis. But Portis spares neither Chaney nor Cogburn. Instead of riding off into the sunset, only to reappear in a sequel, Cogburn suffers a miserable decline (which includes taking the wrong side in the Johnson County War, provoked by Wister’s impeccable cattlemen), and finally dies while employed as an actor in a Wild West show run by Cole Younger and Frank James, who have matured from murderous outlaws into old hams.

5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen

Frank James reappears in this novel, of course, but his younger brother is its guiding light. Hansen tells a familiar story, but uses prose which is vibrant and original, which constantly magicks nouns and adjectives into verbs, into words of action, as if its hero had some direct line to the logos. This religious undercurrent finds further expression in the relationship between Jesse James and his killer, which echoes that between Christ and his red-headed betrayer. Equally scintillating is Hansen’s companion volume Desperadoes, which tells the story of those lesser Kansas outlaws, the Dalton Gang.

6. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian comes blazing from the Book of Revelation. Told through the eyes of a young runaway this blood-soaked and blood-crazed novel details the death, destruction and disease doled out by four dozen horsemen of the apocalypse as they traverse America’s southern borderline. Their leader, the Judge. is Manifest Destiny personified, in all its compulsive and repulsive glory. An altogether cooler and less febrile version of America’s Westward expansion may be found in Blood and Thunder, a popular history by Hampton Sides.

7. Close Range & Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 1 & 2 by Annie Proulx

First, there were the dinosaurs whose bones sleep in Wyoming’s bedrock. Next came the mammals: the elk, the moose, the bison and the wolf. Co-existing with them (though not necessarily with each other) were the Cheyenne, the Crow, and the Sioux. Then came the ranchers and the oilmen, And finally came Annie Proulx, who describes the sorry state to which all have fallen with prose that is beady-eyed, lyrical. cold-blooded, and with a hell of a bite.

8. Stories from Mesa Country by Jane Candia Coleman

As Annie Proulx is to Wyoming, so is Jane Candia Coleman to Arizona. Her prose is as pared down as the land she inhabits. But there is stark beauty in it too. Mesa Country, as described by Coleman, is a merciless place, but amid the death and disappointment are rare moments of compassion and conjuncture, as when an outlaw on the run finds strange (though brief) comfort in the home of a lonely woman. Coleman’s book is divided between Then & Now: Then being the 1880s, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday made a fearsome duo in Tombstone. It is no coincidence that Coleman is married to the historian Glenn G Boyer, whose expertise on Earp et al is beyond compare.

9. Snow Mountain Passage by James D Houston

For a couple of years James D Houston was my near-neighbour in Santa Cruz. The house in which he lived had once belonged to Patty Reed, who as a young girl had been a member of the infamous Donner Party, that band of unfortunate emigrants who had been trapped by winter in the Sierras. Beginning in 1920, with Patty Reed (by then 82) sitting on her porch and contemplating the Pacific’s eternal ebb and flow, Houston’s novel goes on to recount the Donner Party’s ghastly journey from her point of view. Somehow Houston manages to make real not only the stoical calm of an old woman looking back, but also the untested sensibility of an eight-year-old, open to wild adventure and incredible privation (that ended in cannibalism).

10. Crazy Horse by Larry McMurtry

Perhaps I should have picked Lonesome Dove or even The Last Picture Show, but I felt there should be at least one book about the Sioux or the Apache on this list. And since so little is known about Crazy Horse this biography is of necessity speculation if not actual fiction. Nevertheless, McMurtry presents a convincing and sympathetic portrait of one of the most enigmatic figures of the Wild West: never photographed or drawn, never quoted verbatim, and now resting in an unknown grave, Crazy Horse flits through history like a ghost, forever an absent presence, like all our pasts.


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