Broken Dreams and Hard Hearts

In his new anthology Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West 1950 to the Present, Larry McMurtry attempts to strike a bargain with the reader: he'll give you Raymond Carver, Wallace Stegner, Richard Ford and Rick Bass if you'll read new guys Dave Hickey, Mark Joe Poirier and Jon Billman.

McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Texasville, Lonesome Dove) should be a connoisseur of such things, being, well, Larry McMurtry. But his deal falls apart. Still Wild offers the usual trappings of literary fiction from the West—a host of outsiders, drifters and stoic pioneers set against a backdrop of craggy cliffs, desolate prairies and desiccated canyons—but McMurtry's choices seem at times overly calculated and often downright baffling. Is this an anthology of writers from the West? Is this an anthology of writing about the West? What is the “West”? And how do we know McMurtry didn't pick stories by his drinking buddies?

How, in other words, do we know this is a credible anthology?

McMurtry is tightlipped, writing only, “I now have license to leave, so that the process of trusting can begin. . . . To track through these 20 stories and chart, for the reader, their themes and affinities is not my job.”

Still Wild could have been the definitive anthology of contemporary Western literary fiction. It's not. Many of the stories are canonical, and the selections by Ford, Proulx, Carver and William Gass in particular are undoubtedly masterpieces. Carver's “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off” is tragic and sublime, the ultimate hard-luck story; Proulx's “Brokeback Mountain” is a searing tale of two cowboys who fall in love not with the same girl but with each other. In addition, Louise Erdrich's “The Red Convertible,” Wallace Stegner's “Buglesong,” and the stories by Poirier and Billman are top-notch.

But how can you assemble a collection of contemporary American fiction from the West without Tobias Wolff, Norman Maclean and Edward Abbey? How can you include an excerpt from Jack Kerouac's On the Road and call the anthology a collection of short stories? And if you are going to include excerpts on the sly, why not something from Cormac McCarthy or Barbara Kingsolver? How can you call an anthology a collection of short stories from 1950 to the present when only three of the 20 stories were written before 1980?

In addition to many magnificent stories, McMurtry has also chosen some half-rate fiction. William Hauptman's story of an Elvis impersonator (“Good Rockin' Tonight”) is hackneyed and outdated; Max Apple's “Gas Stations” is static, and so is Leslie Marmon Silko's “Lullaby”; Tom McGuane's “Dogs” is simplistic.

But the nagging concern with Still Wild is the gaping hole where Larry McMurtry should be. This is an anthology without a vision, a ship without a captain, a kitchen without a chef. Larry? Toss us a crumb.

If I had to do McMurtry's work for him, I'd say Still Wild offers a set of stories that dramatize the worst kind of luck—the kind that rouses death in one shape or another. Siblings and offspring seem particularly apt to give up the ghost in this world, and the survivors are all too often left with broken dreams and hard hearts. In this light, “Mahatma Joe” by Rick Bass could act as the hub of the collection, highlighting the loss and general thrashing about that many of the stories crystallize.

But that's just a stab in the editorial murk conjured by McMurtry. In a way, Still Wild is too thematically diverse for its own good, yet at the same time, it's too narrow, almost entirely depicting fiction from the 1980s and '90s. But it's still rewarding—especially if you're not familiar with the classics of the genre.

Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West 1950 to the Present edited by Larry McMurtry; Simon and Schuster. 352 pages, hardcover, $26.

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