Warlock, by Oakley Hall

A long piece written for the LRB. In the end, they decided not to publish it, damn their eyes, so it’s making its debut here. It has it problems. I can see that.

I think I signed some kind of contract when they commissioned it. I can’t be bothered to reread it, so if an LRB person stumbles across this, and they think it really shouldn’t be here, then they should give me a shout and I’ll take it down.

The Western novel is one of the deadest of all genres. It still flickers on in the work of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, but as a mass-market phenomenon, it is, like nudist films and skiffle, over. Every so often, the Western stirs again at the cinema and on television – most recently, HBO’s hyper-revisionist Deadwood gives us a West that’s filthy, brutish and foul-mouthed, Hobbes summarised by a sailor’s parrot – but in the world of books it endures almost solely in the 5-for-a-pound racks of provincial second-hand shops.

The books deserve more attention, if only because they have so much to answer for. They helped invent the cowboy, a figure who for the most part abides amiably enough, whether in the Nashville Hat Act aesthetic, the adverts for John Wayne commemorative plates at the back of Sunday magazines, or the Tom of Finland bravos of the gay tradition; and the cowboy code (a man has to make a stand; trust your pard; don’t shoot unarmed men) has provided the architecture for the action film, whether set in Texas or space.

The hold, though, that these myths of the West have on the on imagination of America allows some portion of their population to fall for a president who, still more than that one-time president who played cowboys in films, is playing a cowboy. There is a ranch, and there are cowboy boots (an especially tasteful pair embossed with the presidential seal), and there are speeches that talk about that ‘old poster out west’ which read ‘wanted: dead or alive’. We’re watching a politician act out something he picked up from a bourbon-sodden late night viewing of High Noon, arrogating moral certainty and the righteous competence of the frontier man, then playing a part before a public suckered by too many images of a granitic John Wayne riding a horse through a yellow landscape.

This overpopulated stretch of imaginative territory, the classic mise-en-scène for thousands of shoot-outs, brothel brawls and card-table stand-offs occupies a brief historical span. It’s a quarter-century from the end of the Civil War to the Closing of the Frontier in 1890. The myths began while it was happening. William Cody took his Wild West Show on the road in 1883; it carried on for 30 years, and made Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickock stars around the world and legends to posterity.

While the frontier closed, and Bill’s show continued on its travels, Western fiction became respectable. The Virginian, by Owen Wister is the first time we see the myth masquerade as literature. It’s the story of an East-coast clot of a narrator coming out West, and meeting the titular cowboy, who embodies all manly and independent virtues. It isn’t an especially likeable book – its pally defence of lynch law doesn’t play that well anymore – but it helps set the cowboy cult on its way to cultural dominance. The 20s and 30s are its heyday, the decades in which the genre ruled the imagination of boys. It was a gigantic market: John Dinan’s The Pulp Western lists 184 magazine titles active between the 20s and 40s. Though Elmore Leonard got his start writing for that market in its dying days, there aren’t too many other names of distinction who came from this hothouse. It’s not a literary genre to mourn particularly; fine writing isn’t to be found, and unlike the great age of the science fiction pulps, dawning as the paper Western passes, there are no neat shots of giddying ideas.

All the same, there’s a kind of Borgesian drawn to be taken from it: the scenes repeated over and over with minor variations, deal after deal from a badly shuffled deck: the shoot-out in the main street; the jail with back-talking criminals; and that most American of figures, the locus of commerce, sex and sentiment, the whore with a heart of gold. But even an author pressed into service as the Chandler of the genre looks quite weak. Despite clean dialogue and characters with an extra dimension – which makes two – Ernest Haycox doesn’t have the prose chops to get a literary audience in.

Sometime after the Second World War, the Western loses faith in its myth and starts to lose its popular audience. While the effect on the cinema is easy to trace – the ambiguities of The Searchers, Peckinpah’s grimy, sanguine vision, Leone’s camp – in literature it’s trickier to make out. The turn might start with Oakley Hall’s Warlock. The novel was first published in 1958. It’s a revisionist take on the West, but understand revisionist in a limited sense: we’re nowhere near the occult scalporama of McCarthy’s great Blood Meridian, or the Lovejoy-as-Satan delights of Deadwood. It’s a step on the way; it is, at least, singularly uninterested in horses.

Hall’s still around. He’s one of those of those hugely professional American writers whose books seem to wake up, go to the office and get things done. His 50s novels are stolid, well-wrought things that must have raised the temperature back in the day; more recently he’s been writing a series of detective novels that star Ambrose Bierce. He taught Creative Writing for a long time, and has written two books on the craft of writing. They raise themselves above a tiresome Strunk-and-White bossiness about adverbs through a promiscuous and salutary willingness to hold up both Don DeLillo and Judith Krantz as examples of how it should be done.

Many of his novels are fun and smart without detaining you too long. Warlock, however, is better than that; it’s his finest work by a distance, a clear-eyed look at the West that tries to see it as real, and picks and prods at the awful logic underneath the myths.

It begins as a retelling of the Tombstone story. A South Western mining town is near anarchy. A gang of loose ranchers – in Tombstone, in the Clanton boys, here it’s Abe McQuown and associates – are causing classic Western trouble: rough behaviour in the streets, cattle rustling, holding up the stage coaches. The nearest thing to real law is a day’s ride away in Bright City, and the Marshal there has disowned Warlock. Too much trouble. The territory’s governor, Colonel Peach, is no use. He’s near-senile, his mind lost in long-finished campaigns against the Apache. The town decides that it needs order, and so the citizens’ committee, run by the most burgerlich members of the community, pays for the gun of Clay Blaisedell, the Wyatt Earp of this story. He comes with a big reputation as a fast-shooter: in fact, he’s been given a pair of gold-handled pistols by a journalist-cum-fabulist who makes a living from tales of Blaisedell’s derring-do. Blaisedell has a long-time friendship with Tom Morgan, who runs one of the town’s saloons. This is Warlock’s Doc Holliday, though the suspicions that surround the intemperate gambler Holliday are raised to facts in the case of Morgan: he murders remorselessly and sees life as little more than a series of bets.

So far, predictable. We’ve either got a Western, in which case the white hats shoot the black hats, or we’ve got a modern Western, in which case the same shooting gets done, but everyone’s wearing grey hats. Warlock, though, is a queerer book than this.

From the first, it throws the focus off the usual cast. Instead, it has its eye on Bud Gannon, an apostate from McQuown’s crew. A massacre of Mexicans during a cattle raid took away Gannon’s taste for the criminal life (that’s where it gets closest to the genocidal frenzies of McCarthy. The back cover will try to tell you it’s like him. It’s not). He left town and failed to hold together a straight life, so he’s come back. To do what, or why, he’s not sure; but he near accidentally takes a side when he stops Blaisedell being back-shot in a stand off with McQuown.

His brother is still out with McQuown’s mob, and so again, we should have a traditional Western: a family divided, bandit and Lawman, only one can survive! However, something strange again goes on. Blaisedell kills Gannon’s brother in the ‘Shoot-out at the Acme Corral’ (which, plainly enough, is the OK Corral). This, the theoretical climax of any version of the Tombstone Legend, takes place less than a third of the way through the book. For complicated reasons Blaisedell was in the wrong to shoot Gannon’s brother. He realises this and voluntarily rides out to Bright City to stand trial, where he’s cleared (Earp too stood trial for the OK Corrall). Gannon still refuses to obey the rules of the genre, and does not go after Blaisedell for the shooting. Instead he becomes an odd, quiet deputy, even as Blaisedell is cleared and retreats into Faro dealing at Morgan’s saloon.

By this point, the odd flavour of the book has come out. A gloomy inwardness pervades the whole thing. Characters ponder, and you wonder if anyone’s ever going to go out and get shot. There’s steel somewhere at its heart of Warlock. It’s relentless in scratching at the problems of the Western and the Western code.

The engine of this, the near-obsession of the book, is The Law. Judge Holloway stands for the law in Warlock. He does little except drink and talk over the course of the novel, but that talk is the book’s chorus and conscience. He rants at Blaisedell over and again, picking apart his claims to legitimacy, trying to find who he’s answerable to, where he’s responsible: Blaisedell starts by saying he answers to the citizen’s committee, but that’s broken down quickly. He ‘posts’ (exiles under threat of death) undesirables from the town for the Committee: he willingly posts McQuown’s men after they’ve been cleared at the Bright City courthouse. However, he won’t post a miner whom business interests on the committee want out for union activism. His motivation is confused, a mix of decency and romantic propriety: he refuses to post the miner at the behest of Miss Jessie. She’s one of the finest things in the book: the miners’ angel, running a guesthouse that doubles as a hospital, she’s animated by self-conscious virtue, overdosing on Waverly novels and in love with Blaisedell. The icy wickedness of the self-contained well-meaning is caught precisely.

The judge has words on Blaisedell’s refusal:

I am warning you Marshal. You are now standing naked and all alone. The Citizens’ Committee has gone and disqualified itself plain to everyone from pretending to run any kind of law in this town. Ordering you to something wasn’t only illegal and bad but was pure damned outrage besides. And you disqualified yourself from them by refusing to do it. (p. 126)

>He’s immediately called an ‘old cowpat’ for this unpopular opinion, but there’s a pure logic to it: he tells Blaisedell that ‘there is nothing you are accountable to any more,’ (p. 126) and he’s right.

Pynchon, back in his time in and around Cornell with Richard Fariña, was a big fan of the book. The two of them had a micro-cult going, which would speak in the Walrlock dialogue, ‘a kind of thoughtful, stylized, Victorian Wild West diction’. In 1965, he wrote a short piece on Warlock, and gets precisely to this social argument in Warlock:

…what is called society, with its law and order, is as frail, as precarious, as flesh and can be snuffed out and assimilated back into the desert as easily as a corpse can. It is the deep sensitivity to abysses that makes Warlock one of our best American novels.

He’s exactly right in talking about the abyss. That’s where Blaisedell’s heroism, the Cowboy cult, takes us. Warlock’s stolidity sits oddly next to Pynchon’s dazzle, but the connection’s strong: Vineland, Pynchon’s dark study of the American lust for freedom and its persistent, pathological self-betrayal, shares a lot with the novel. There’s a cold logic and encroaching pessisism to the two of them: America, the nation of freedom, frontier and lonely hero destroys itself over and over with a cold, self-consuming logic.

Warlock’s hope lies with Gannon. He cleaves to the law because he realises that that is all they have: that this is just doomed to end up as an endless cycle of violence if they turn away from that. He becomes involved with an old lover of Morgan’s; she wants vengeance, but he doesn’t help her with it. Blaisedell was swayed by romance, but Gannon resists. The code of the cowboy and the codce of chivalry do not work: Gary Cooper will not arrive to sort everything out. Gannon’s living a primal story – lex talionis replaced by Legality, an Orestia in stetsons – and it’s his responsibilty to be dutifully dull. Instead of being a hero, he needs to follow the rule book and make Warlock work.

Once the novel is rolling, and it’s working out what happens after the shootout at the OK/Acme Corral, it’s ruthless in making and playing out conflicts. Characters and interests strike against one another over and over, lighting that central argument, the meaning of law, the proximity of anarchy and the difficulty of building a working society, from every angle: the Miners vs. Morgan; Peach vs. Blaisedell; McQuown vs Gannon; Gannon vs. Blaisedell; the miners vs. Peach; Blaisedell vs. Morgan; the Committee vs. Gannon. At points, the remorseless collisions nearly feel the product of a continental experimental movement plotting the book by mathematical means. In fact, it’s a useful inheritance from the traditonal Western; the strongest suit of the genre is male/male conflict. It’s about a limitless world shrinking to one choice, over and over: stand and fight, or run? Hall chose the right genre for the job.

There is more to Warlock than this analytics of frontier justice. The mining sub-plots reach off in a different direction, one that Hall would follow later. The miners want a union. The mine-owner objects. The miners tend to lynch law; the owner uses vigilantism to run them down. When authority does arrive, in the form of General Peach, it’s brutal and lawless itself, arbitrary, unsanctioned martial force hammering the workers. We’re back to the law, of course, but there’s another of Hall’s big themes here. In more recent books – Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Hearts, Separations – the big companies and new magnates of the South West aren’t just pushing the little man around and trying win the game: they want to own the game, and so ensure there is no possibility for a fair fight somewhere down the line. The mining company in Warlock is his first pass at the theme.

Warlock’s got its problems. Too many characters are ciphers; and the prose is flat for swathes of the novel. Hall’s a fine, lucid writer of action: he’s precise and smooth and there aren’t snags in the prose; but that doesn’t make for subtlety. It also remains close to genre in many regards. This is still the palette of the Western, and if you read Warlock, you will meet a Doctor addicted to laudanum, you will see a stagecoach hold-up, and there is a piano player called The Professor. If you don’t think you can take an interest in these conventions, there may not be enough incidental sparkle to make you clap your hands. It won’t quite offer the grit-and-innards pseudo-reality that one expects from the post-Peckinpah form.

However it’s a smart, smart book. The Western novel in the 50s didn’t especially need a dose of gritty reality. Zane Grey, for instance, is a pretty grimy sort of writer (when he’s kept away from romance and the feelings of the fairer sex, at which point he turns into Ouida). What it did need was someone to think about its matter a little bit more. This code of the West – is it more important than the law? We need to build a society – can we do that? How are economic interests going to operate during this period of near-anarchy – and no fairytales about the big ranchers and the tough little guys standing up to them. Warlock doesn’t like believing in lies. That’s its virtue. It doesn’t tell you that the Cowboy’s a heroic figure, that in the old west men = men and women = women (men, incidentally, > women), and life was tough but honest. What Warlock hammers at, again and again, is that without the law, the code of the west is poison, that ethical perfection is necessary to be the gunslinging hero who’s here to clean up this town; and that ethical perfection is unattainable. It’s a grim and dull message, answering to how it is more than how we want to it to be, but in a world shaken by the actions of the Ivy League Aristocrat cowboy, it remains invaluable.