Sunday, August 5, 2018

Warlock by Oakley Hall

For are we not, perhaps, here in Warlock, sitting in upon the childbed of a Legend?  Are we watching such a momentous birth all unknowingly, and, unknowingly, too, this one or that one of us helping it along, acting as midwife, boiling the water, holding the swaddling clothes, etc.?  As time goes on and if the infant does not die (literally!) and continues to grow, will not this cheap and fabulous account in this poor excuse for a magazine become, on its own terms, a version much more acceptable than ours, the true one?  It is a curious thought, how much do these legends, as they outstrip and supersede their originals, rest upon Truth, and how much upon some dark and impenetrable design within Man himself?

The town of Warlock, somewhere in the Southwestern United States in the late 19th century, has a problem with road agents and cattle rustlers.  Petty crime carries with it the constant threat and reality of violence.  Warlock's political situation contributes to the unease: the sheriff in the larger nearby town considers Warlock not a part of his jurisdiction, but a senile old governor drags his feet on incorporating Warlock as the seat of a new county.  There is no peace in Warlock because there is no law in Warlock, literally.  A committee of businessman hires a famed gunman named Clay Blaisedell as marshal to defend the town against the cowboys, led by the notorious red-headed Abe McQuown.

Warlock begins this way, with a classic Western setup.  Blaisedell is the whitehat, McQuown is the blackhat, and the novel is a speeding train running toward their final confrontation.  The truth is that Westerns have been picking apart the myths and legends of the Wild West since the west really was wild, but Warlock does it with incredible subtlety and narrative force.  Blaisedell is a good man, and he believes in the work he's doing, but no man can be quite as good as the myth that a man like Blaisedell carries with him.  All the characters in Warlock, except the very vilest of McQuown's cowboys, are are committed to a kind of stringent code: no "backshooting," no firing until you're drawn upon, etc.  Blaisedell is the avatar of this code, and it's no surprise that he quit marshaling and takes it back up several times over the course of the novel; he's constantly being made to face the limitations of his own ability to be such an avatar.

"We do not break so simply as some think into the two camps of townsmen and Cowboys," writes the storeowner Henry Goodpasture, whose diaries are interspersed throughout the narrative.  "We break into the camps of those wildly inclined, and those soberly, those irresponsible and those responsible, those peace-loving and those outlaw and riotous by nature."  But McQuown's cowboys see themselves on the side of the "responsible" and "peace-loving" as much as Blaisedell does.  In fact, they object that Blaisdell's tactic of "posting" a man out of town under penalty of death is a miscarriage of justice, perpetrated out of sheer animus or dislike.  When a strikebreaking mine owner hires McQuown's cowboys as a group of Regulators to threaten and cajole the miners, it gives them the same kind of specious authority, given by moneyed interests in the absence of real political law, enjoyed by Blaisedell.  It's no surprise when McQuown posts Blaisedell out himself.  Warlock never goes so far as to suggest that McQuown and Blaisedell are on equal footing, legally or morally, but it does just enough to trouble the conditions of Blaisedell's employment to muddy the waters.  The mythmaking that Goodpasture sees occurring in real time conceals those moral complexities utterly.

It isn't really McQuown who is Blaisedell's antithesis, but the town's nominal sheriff's deputy, John Gannon.  Gannon's power comes from the absentee sheriff, not the business owners, and if there's any legal power at all in Warlock, it's his.  He's also an old associate of McQuown's, grown disgusted by the cowboys' behavior, and that makes him a kind of liminal figure in Warlock.  The townspeople, by and large, think that he's working subterfuge for McQuown, and McQuown's men consider him a traitor.  It's not a comfortable place to be.  And yet it's a lack of partisanship that allows Gannon to do the work of peacekeeping with moral clarity.  Gannon leaves his brother to die at Blaisedell's hand when his brother is in the wrong; Blaisedell, on the other hand, has his authority challenged and nearly undone by his personal affection for his violent friend, Tom Morgan.  Blaisedell is the myth, but is bound to collapse under it; Gannon is the image, or perhaps the omen, of the law in the West, beholden to no one and nothing but its own principles, and likely to be forgotten in the shadow of mythical figures like Blaisedell.  McQuown is a red(-headed) herring; the final confrontation is, as it has to be, Blaisdell and Gannon, myth against reality.

Even that's more clearly put than Hall suggests.  For one, the law doesn't look so great when it comes in at the end of the novel in the figure of the territorial government intervening on behalf of the mine owners against the strikers.  But Warlock describes in fine detail the difficult choices involved in building a civilization up out of the inhospitable desert of the American frontier.  And it's a page-turner, too: I finished the nearly 500-page book in three days because I just couldn't put it down.  Even though it picks apart the myths of the American West with ruthlessness, it still offers incredibly satisfying variations on the classic moments of Western novels and films: the duel, the stage robbery, the gambling hall dust-up, the cowboy riding off into the sunset.

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