Imagine that sentence with "cowboys" replaced with "certified accountants." Or "refrigerators." Or "fertilizer." That's how excited my wife sounded by "a movie about cowboys." (Sorry, certified accountants.)
And here's the thing: There aren't even any cowboys in True Grit! It's not about a cattle drive or cattle rustling or cattle anything. THERE ARE NO COWS! But for some people, unfortunately, Stetsons = cowboys = "cowboy movie" = fertilizer.
Forgive them, Louis L'Amour! They know not what they do!
I'm thinking about all this because I was talking Westerns with a book-loving buddy this week, and when I sent him a list of recommended novels I was struck by what a diverse herd it was. Yes, they're all set in the American West in the second half of the 19th century (or close to it) -- prime Western real estate. But in tone, style, message and intent they're all over the map...and sometimes they're so far out they go clear off the map altogether.
My Five Favorite Western (Not Cowboy!) Novels
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
So there are these cowboys, see, and they have to get this herd to...doh! O.K, yes -- there are cowboys in my favorite Western novel. And there are cows. Lots and lots of cows. But not only is it the most enthralling novel about cowboys and cows I've ever read, it's one of the most enthralling novels about people I've ever read. I mean, when Blue Duck kills that kid and that deputy dude I actually burst into tears. LARRY McMURTRY, YOU MADE ME CRY!!! And I love you for it.
True Grit by Charles Portis
You want to know why it's been made into a movie twice? And why both movies are really good? Because the book is bleeping great. The hero -- doggedly determined 14-year-old dynamo Mattie Ross -- is one of the most unique, funny, authentic first-person narrator's ever. For my money, the only novel that comes close, first-person genius-wise, is a little gem called --
Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
Funny, sad, silly, profound, sarcastic, sincere, light, dark. And did I mention funny? But sad? Oh, I did? Maybe my memory's not so reliable anymore. Kind of like 111-year-old Jack Crabb, the narrator of this haunting (but hilarious!) look back at the Way the West Was Won (and our innocence was lost).
Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker
Parker took the stripped down, minimalist style of an old detective novel, applied it to the Western and voila! (to use a very un-Western phrase): a classic. Parker's three sequels about deadly-but-honorable guns-for-hire Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch quickly descend into lazy self parody, but the book that kicked off the series is pure pleasure.
The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout
An old gunslinger gets ready to die...and hopes it's a good death. That's about it. There's a little action in the beginning, a little action at the end, and lots of talking in between. And it works beautifully. Swarthout also wrote The Homesman, which has a fantastic premise and an execution so sexist, wrong-headed and discursive it made me furious. But hey -- all (or most) is forgiven, Glendon. Because The Shootist still rocks.
Honorable mention: Deadwood by Pete Dexter, The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan, Cottonwood by Scott Phillips, The Thicket by Joe Lansdale, The Hanging Tree by Dorothy M. Johnson, Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer and Doc by Mary Doria Russell (though, man, does she let Wyatt Earp off the hook -- that guy was a scumbag!).
Oh, and by the way -- my wife and daughter did watch True Grit with me. And they loved it.
As the cowboys might say: Yeeeeeeeeehaaaaaaa!!!!