Magazine article The Spectator

Gunslinger Back from the Grave

Magazine article The Spectator

Gunslinger Back from the Grave

Article excerpt


by Thomas Berger

Harvill 15.99, 11.99, pp. 320

On the superhighway of popular culture, you will find no more spectacular specimen of road-kill than the Western. Not so very long ago, the showdown at the OK Corral, Custer's Last Stand and 10,000 red men biting the dust were the stuff of life for Hollywood and the pulp fiction industry.

Then, some time in the late Seventies, it all mysteriously died away. The collective attention of the world had turned elsewhere. But comebacks are also the stuff of popular culture, and so, quite predictably, there has been a concerted effort of late to revive the genre.

The form in which it now returns, however, is different from what we have known in the past. The corn-ball, he-man posturing of yore simply will not do in these post-modern times. As the novels of Cormac MacCarthy and films like The Horse Whisperer attest, Westerns, though formerly viewed as somewhat lowbrow, are as capable of pretentious overkill as any other cultural enterprise.

Thomas Berger's latest novel, The Return of Little Big Man, occupies an ambiguous place in the development of this genre. His protagonist, Jack Crabb, is a white orphan raised by the Cheyenne Indians. He was last seen in the novel Little Big Man, a hugely successful Sixties phenomenon that became an equally celebrated film starring Dustin Hoffman. This latest of Berger's 20 novels is, however, less a revival than a resurrection: at the conclusion of the last instalment, the protagonist died at the extraordinarily advanced age of 111. Now even older, he explains that he had merely faked his death for a variety of hokey reasons that needn't detain us.

What is interesting about the novel is that it offers us a largely unreconstructed image of the Old West, one that looks back, beyond Cormac MacCarthy, to John Ford and Zane Grey. For Berger and his protagonist, the West is a cosmic playground where overgrown boys cuss and fight and even manage to die without quite getting hurt. All of its legendary heroes are hauled back into the light of the living: Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. Surely the protagonist exhibits traces of an irony that would have seemed out of place a generation back; but underneath this rather thin veneer of nuance and complexity every last gunslinger and cowpoke has a heart of solid gold. …

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