Sunday, November 19, 2006

Richard S, Wheeler; Harry Whittington

From Richard S. Wheeler

Even as mass-market westerns continue to disappear from the racks, new forms of the western story are rising. The relentless decline of mass-market westerns is, I believe, largely the fault of the rigid publishers who still slap a picture of a cowboy with a blazing gun on almost every cover no matter what is inside. When the last mass-market western rolls of the press (any day now) it will still have the cowboy and blazing gun on its cover. But I won't spend time here about that.

We are seeing the rise of a phenomenon: the university press western. A few presses, such as the University of New Mexico and University of Oklahoma, are generating western fiction, some of it good, even as the old ritualized mass-market variety vanishes. 
One of the most remarkable of these is High Country, by Willard Wyman, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. It is a breathtaking novel about a packer and follows his life in from the 1930s to the 1960s. I rank it as one of the greatest of all westerns, and believe it will eventually make the all-time-best-western lists, once it has been widely read. If anyone has any doubt about that, look at the reader comments on Amazon.

  Its hero, Ty Hardin, grows up on a hardscrabble ranch and becomes a packer, taking people into the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana, and eventually into the Sierra Nevada. It's also a great love story. In fact, the women in the novel are as enduring and strong and richly textured as the men, especially Cody Jo, the wife of Ty's mentor, for whom he has a tender and unrequited love. Hardin packs for the Forest Service and for hunters and for adventurers who want to probe deep into wilderness. In World War Two he sees mechanization replace mules, and after his wounding and discharge he retreats to the high country, where he can continue to do the things he loves, and be near the woman he loves.

  Its author, Bill Wyman, is a retired California English professor, dean of students at Stanford, and headmaster of a private California school. He is a packer himself, and is as deeply rooted in the lore of mule packing as his hero. He knows the mountains, their joys and dangers, as well as his hero does.

  The novel won two Spur Awards (best first novel, and best long western novel) and I suspect it will be widely celebrated. Beyond that, it is well on its way to becoming a legend.

  Meanwhile, academic presses, of all things, are starting to churn out western fiction. Years ago, William Kittredge said that western fiction had to get out from beneath the "western" in order to bloom. At the time he said that, around 1990, he angered me. It smacked of academic elitism. Now I simply agree with him. He had taken a closer look at the sclerotic western fiction pouring from the mass-market houses than I had. The pocketbook western proved to be too calcified to change or grow, and its present demise does not mean the end of western fiction, but the beginning of something much better.



Back in the 1950s you could run but you couldn’t hide from Harry Whittington. Those were the days when many if not most paperbacks were sold in wire racks found in drug stores, grocery stores and what were then called dime stores.

Harry told me that he’d once seen five books of his displayed on the same rack, all published that month. He worked for everybody, from Gold Medal all the way down to Carnival. He did westerns, nurse romances, tie-ins, war stories and of course crime novels. The last was his true calling. There there was no sub-genre of suspense/mystery he didn’t like. Or apply himself to.

I mention Harry because Stark House Publishing has just published two of his best in a single attractive volume, A Night for Screaming and Any Woman He Wanted. I should also mention here that I’m a free-lance editor for Stark House, though I’d be reviewing this two-fer with the same enthusiasm even if I weren’t.

Harry’s world was not one of ratiocination. There wasn’t time for that. Most of his white working class protagonists were on the run from cosmic forces that would have given Lovecraft pause. In Night, for instance, the villain is so oppressive you seriously begin to wonder if the protagonist will survive. Seriously. The setting is one of those labor camp where drifters and small-time cons are forced to toil for the local politicians who make money on them. If the characterizations are less subtle than COOL HAND LUKE, the violence is every bit as painful. There are two scenes that literally made me wince. Harry knew the Deep South all too well.

Any Woman is a working class nightmare of a different kind. A once crooked cop stumbles on to a situation even he doesn’t want to cover up and joins his former enemy the DA in trying to right it. But the DA dies mysteriously and the cop is forced to go after the mob that runs the town by himself. Although this is a familiar 50s theme (the crooked town), Harry throws in a complication that makes the story personal and harsh. Harry always said that he knew how to do two things – plot and create characters. And this book proves that wasn’t any empty boast.

Here’s the Stark House website: Publisher Greg Shepard is bringing back the favorites of the 50s including Malcolm Braly, Gil Brewer, Stephen Marlowe, Day Keene, Vin Packer, Doug Sanderson and now Harry Whittington. He needs your support and I feel he deserves it, which is why I’m lending a hand. As I mentioned on my blog the other day, I recently paid $15 for a paperback from ABE. Well, I just got it today. It’s yellowed and the spine cracked when I opened it. Stark House sells two-fers (two books per volume) in handsome, sturdy editions for $19.95 that will last much longer than most pbs. I have no financial stake in this, I merely want to see the line thrive. Check out the website.

1 comment:

Jerry said...

Wow. I can't wait to read Wyman's book. After Norman MacLean's Bill Bell and Tom Russell's Rayburn Crane, I like seeing another packer as protagonist.