Sunday, February 24, 2008

Books: Warlock, by Oakley Hall

Let's not waste any more time weighing No Country For Old Men against (the clearly superior) There Will Be Blood, complaining that Casey Affleck had his rightful Oscar snatched away from him despite his weird and brilliant performance in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, or bemoaning the fact that I missed out on 3:10 to Yuma in the theater, which I never really wanted to see anyway. The only western that I really want to see hasn't been made (at least, not the way it probably needs to be made—there is a 1959 version that I now must see starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda). Forget Cormac McCarthy. It's all about Oakley Hall.

I hadn't ever heard of Hall, nor his book Warlock (which sounds deceptively Fantastic) until I read Thomas Pynchon's introduction to Richard Fariña's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. The two authors knew each other in college, and both adored and found inspiration in Oakley Hall's Warlock. Pynchon may not be my favorite author, but I've read every one of his novels (except Against the Day, which is on my list), and while I ended up not liking Fariña very much, Pynchon's endorsement was enough to make me add Warlock to my list. And I ended up liking it much better than anything by Fariña, Pynchon, and most any other man who wrote a novel in the mid-to-late 20th century. It's brilliant.

Mind you, I've never read a Western before, and furthermore never thought I wanted to read one. I didn't know that the deceptively-named Warlock even was a Western until I opened it up and saw the little gun wingdings gracing the top of the first page. And yet, Warlock is without the campy trappings I so dislike in Westerns (which are, let's face it, Romances for boys); instead, it's spare and raw and real, like a clean, shiny bone that's been chewed on for a while. Hall's good guys have inner weaknesses, and his bad guys do, too—that is to say, his characters (unlike No Country's infuriating Anton Chigurh) are human. . . really human. Whether a character is a rustler, a bar owner, a gambler, a deputy, a judge, or a whore, motivations are not black-and-white, and the concomitant existential pain eradicates differences (for the reader, that is—not within the confines of plot, although more philosophical realizations are made than one might expect for a Western).

Warlock itself—the lawless mining settlement which these characters inhabit—embodies the same existential crisis as its inhabitants: a need for definition, and recognition. It's in the midst of major growing pains, and the novel is as much a bildungsroman of a city (in fact, our country) as of the not-quite-protagonist John Gannon (who, in the movie, will definitely need to be played by Casey Affleck). In Warlock, the tensions between law and order versus freedom, profit versus humanitarianism, and pride versus ethics are taut, and give the novel its intense, page-burning vibration, low-pitch, but loud (like a cello rather than a violin). Hall so organically addresses these issues that we begin to see the cracks in today's America not only as fissures grown from our country's particular history, but (and even more darkly) from the human condition in general; as the alcoholic and misanthropic Judge says toward the novel's end, "We will fight fire with futile water or with savage fire to the end of this earth itself, and never prevail, and we will drown in our water and burn in our preventative fire. How can men live, and know that in the end they will merely die?" I don't know that Oakley Hall gives us any hope, but I don't know that I wanted any, either. After all, it would probably be false. Like the people of Warlock, we all do whatever best we can, never knowing, like sometimes narrator Henry Goodpasture, whether we made the right value judgements or decisions, and having to yield to old age and death either way. Warlock, though it eventually gets its legal charter, nevertheless ends up an abandoned ghost town.

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