Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Warlock by Oakley Hall

"Bitter?" he heard Kate say. above the humming in his ears. "Why yes I am bitter! Because men have found a way to crucify every decent man, starting with Our Lord. No, it is not even bitter--it is just common sense. They will admire him because he killed a man they wouldn't've had the guts to go against. But they will hate him for it, because of that."

I cut my grown-up reading teeth on Westerns, mostly Louis L'Amour and numerous knock-offs. I can recite the structure of those books now. It's a bonding ritual amongst those who've read many. A loner comes to town, usually with a dark past. The town is run by the seemingly benevolent but actually malevolent "largest rancher in the valley". There's a grudging gunfight as a cowboy who's had too much to drink can't help but throw iron on the stranger. There's at least one fistfight that usually ends with the stranger taking his bruises, and then a final gunfight against overwhelming odds. And there's usually a girl there to help pick up the pieces. Within this framework, there's a lot of fun stuff that can happen, but the structure is sacrosanct.

Warlock, one of the numerous award winners that NYRB has rescused from obscurity, has a full-length blurb from the rarely terse Thomas Pynchon on the back cover, and that might lead you to believe that it's the sort of book that would wildly buck those conventions--an ambiguous ending, perhaps? Historical characters behaving anachronisitically? Or, at a minimum, a modernistic nihilism like Unforgiven. But you'd be wrong, because in many ways, Warlock follows the aforementioned structure to a T. The way it follows it is sometimes surprising, sometimes moving, sometimes predictable, but after finishing and taking a step back, it's not hard to see the contours of L'Amour and John Wayne.

Where it bests most Westerns though, is the thoroughness with which it examines the mining town of Warlock and its denizens. Although most of the book focuses on hired-gun sheriff Clay Blaisdell, black-sheep former outlaw John Gannon, amoral drifter Morgan, and the mysterious Kate, plenty of other citizens get moments of focus to make them more than the cardboard cutouts that tertiary characters in these sorts of books tend to be. We get a side-plot about the organizers of a miner's strike, a look at the politics in the little big Bright's City and their uncaring--and half crazy--beauracracy, and about 1/4 of the book is told through the diary entries of Henry Holmes-Goodpasture, a put-upon store owner who, in a clever bit of metacommentary on the genre, keeps getting his front window smashed.

But Gannon and Blaisedell form the beating heart of Warlock. Blaisdell has killed so many men that he can't seem to stop, in spite of the wear on his spirit. And Gannon reluctantly but unwaveringly takes up the office of deputy after Blaisedell steps down early in the novel, after killing Gannon's brother. Though the gunman-stranger is usually--and even here, is--the magnetic center that holds everything together, Gannon gets the most character work, starting the book regretting a massacre he participated in and ending it... well, there's a fistfight and a gunfight, but anything more would be telling.

Warlock is able to sustain its tight-broad paradoxical focus because Hall recognizes that the town itself is too small for anyone or anything to really be a sideplot. Often we learn about events after the fact second-hand, and while there's no real unreliable narrator here, that level of remove is engaging in a way that a straightforward telling might not be. There are plenty of frontier ruminations on the nature of society, and of man, but in the end, it comes down to guns and fists because the land, the people, the government, the mines, they are brutal. It takes a certain constitution to make it through with both life and soul intact, and Hall expertly breaks down his archtypical characters until they feel like real people. Then, in an epilogue, he tells what ultimately became of them all, bringing the archetypes to the foreground and showing us that the cycle never really ends. It's only the geography that's different.
To my mind, Blaisdell is only a small and temporary blight on the body politic; with all else healthy and aright he will automatically disappear. Like the rest of us, but perhaps for different reasons, he too is no longer interested in the Citizens Committee. I am apathetic of his ambitions; I am contemptuous of his optimism. The old, corrupt, and careless god has been replaced in his Heaven, and so, he feels, all will be well with the world, which is, after all, the best of all possible ones. It is a touching faith. But I am more drawn to those who wander the night not with excitement but with dread for it.

I see many of them through my window, unable to sleep now that the fire is out. For what fire is out, and what is newly lighted and what will burn forever and consume us all? How can men live, and know that in the end they will merely die?

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