Best of the West 2010: New Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri
Edited by James Thomas & D. Seth Horton
University of Texas Press, 246 pages, $19.95
Kent Meyers‘ insightful foreword, “Why All the Law?” is one of the best pieces in the 2010 edition of the recently revived annual anthology of Western short fiction, Best of the West. Meyers makes a cogent argument about what distinguishes Western American literature from any other regional literature. Meyers writes, “the outlaw has a peculiar relationship to Western American literature.” Often in Western lit, the outlaw is a “royal” figure, somehow deposed from power and left to make his existence on the outskirts of society. Meyers compares this glorification of outlaws to the tendency of some Western people to try to free themselves from the reach of law, taxes, and other trappings of government, as did Warren Jeffs. “The West makes promises to fictional kings,” Meyers writes, “it offers resources of space and land and solitude.”
Meyers’ conclusion seems eerily prescient in light of the recent assassination attempt against Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona: “Literary authors find, as well as invent, their stories. In the American West, those stories often spring out of a concern with how the individual, so easily tempted toward moral solipsism, manages, or doesn’t, to stay connected to the needs of others, and so keeps from becoming a law unto himself. If an examination of these forces is what Western writers tend toward, it’s a gift the nation needs right now as it struggles with the conundrum of remaining true to its own laws while facing those who would not merely break the law but destroy it.”
Meyers makes his case out of examples from recent history and outlaw-packed Western stories, such as Owen Wister’s The Virginian, the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Apart from one uncaught murderer in Daniel Orozco’s “Only Connect,” some Arizona outlawry in Justin St. Germain’s “Tortolita,” and some male menace in Aurelie Sheehan‘s suspenseful “Gentle Future,” most of the stories in Best of the West belong to a different strain in Western literature than the outlaw tendency Meyers discusses.
Instead, many of these stories depict people living within the laws of their Western communities, caring for one another, or trying to navigate the rules of particular subcultures, such as the world of NCAA pole vaulters that Darren Dillman vividly depicts in “Cloudcroft,” or the life of a team of biologists studying grizzlies in Julia Glass’s expertly crafted “The Price of Silver.” One character, Amadeo Padilla in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s riveting “The Five Wounds,” hopes portraying Jesus in a Good Friday reenactment of Christ’s passion will render him distinctive and worthy in the eyes of his small New Mexico community.
William Kittredge’s lovely “Stone Boat,” about a group of cowboys driving a herd of Mexican steers shipped up from the Sonoran desert to Oregon, concludes with a swift, tender evocation of the way one of the young men participating in the drive comes to settle into his place in the community: “The boy dreamed of Sonora, and blossoming orange trees, a land he could only imagine. Back in Eugene, he fell in love, fathered children, grew old, told them this story.”
The perks of Western community are lovingly portrayed in Ron Carlson‘s sweet, funny story “Victory at Sea,” in which the aging bachelor Stan Craig purchases a “once-in-a-lifetime” dual-axle boat trailer because the asking price is so low. Craig does not own a boat, and his business partner and the other people in town rib him about his “invisible boat.” The town’s postmistress takes an interest in him, and asks him for a boating date, but trouble ensues when a neighbor persuades Stan to use the trailer to move an enormous rusty bear trap. The people in this story care deeply for one another, and despite an impressive, fiery disaster at its climax, they help each other land safely.
Natalie Diaz movingly conveys a Mojave woman’s devotion for her diabetic, double amputee grandmother in the spirited “How To Love A Woman With No Legs.” Diaz pulls off the tricky second-person point of view through striking detail. Diaz writes, “The night she died you unraveled all the God’s eyes you’d ever made for her because you wanted God to know what it felt like without eyes—like she felt without legs, like you felt without her.”
The lure of the land is not always enough to keep the characters content in their Western communities—in Ben Kostival’s “Islanders,” a woman leaves her husband behind after decades of living in Fairbanks, Alaska for warmer weather in the lower 48. In Dina Guidabaldi’s quirky, funny, “The Desert: A Field Guide,” a wife moves against her will with her husband to the desert, a landscape she detests, because “maybe I believed that love trumped desert like paper covered rock.”
The stories Best of the West 2010 by some long-reigning champs of Western lit such as William Kittredge, Ron Carlson, and Kent Nelson are wonderful, but more exciting are the new voices this collection brings to light, including the young New Mexico native writers Kirstin Valdez Quade and Darren Dillman, Arizona’s Natalie Diaz, and Texas-based Dina Guidubaldi.