Uncategorized | June 06, 2016
Genre Convention: Robert Garner McBrearty on Weird Westerns
Genre Convention is the Missouri Review’s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include apocalyptic fictions, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.
Don’t Shoot the Horse
I spent my youth in Texas not galloping across the sun-baked plains, but riding my Schwinn high-handlebar golden bike through the broad oak-shaded streets of suburban San Antonio. My closest association with cowboys, in fact, occurred as a teen when I was mugged by a dozen of them when they invaded a party of long-hairs that had spilled out on the front lawn of a neighborhood house. Though my hair was long, I didn’t really have the credentials to be a full hippie, but I was categorized as a “surfer” though I had never actually surfed. Alas, cowboys didn’t like surfers any more than they liked hippies. While my chicken-hearted friends ran inside, the cowboys cut my path of escape off and surrounded me on the lawn. Though I politely offered to arrive at terms and fight just one, a big-hatted, bandy-legged cowboy grinned and said, “Nah, it will be easier if we all just jump you.” With a good team effort, they showered me with punches, knocked me to the ground and kicked at me, a beating cut short by my impromptu defensive tactic, which was letting out a shrieking blood-curdling death howl, which reverberated in the air, then subsided to a rattling sound in my throat. One cried out, “We killed him!” And they ran off in fear of the cops and long imprisonment.
Despite this, despite you drugstore cowboy bastards, despite even that, I’ve made cowboys the heroes, such as they are, of some of my stories.
In fact, I owe much to Western stories. My first story was a Western, written in 1968, when I was a freshman at a Catholic high school. Memory fails and I can’t recall if there was actually air conditioning in the school or not, but I think of May in Texas as blistering hot, as hot as the desert my characters, my first creations, desperately stumbled through. As our last task of the school year, our English teacher Brother Al assigned us to write a short story. He gave no instructions. “We’ve read short stories this year,” he said, “now go and write one.” We had two weeks.
I learned several things from this assignment. One may be that minimal instruction is sometimes the best. Baffled at first, I began to form characters and a storyline in my mind. For two weeks, day and night, even during other classes, I toiled away in longhand, in my pre-typing days, handing off my nearly indecipherable scribblings to my mother, standing over her shoulder and narrating the words she couldn’t read. If my attention slipped, she had a penchant for inserting some of her own sentences and for softening the more obscene conversations of my characters. A wagon train had been attacked by Apaches. Three survivors were left: the hero, who was a rangy fellow named McCracken, a bad guy whose name I can’t recall, and a beautiful woman, and I can’t recall her name either, though she had long black hair and an upbeat attitude. They had one horse between them, little water, and the only hope for anyone to survive was to ditch the others and make off with the horse. Because each distrusted the others, no one rode the horse. They only plodded along beside it, kicking up desolate little clouds of sand. After a day or two of mutual attraction, a sense that in better days they might have hooked up, McCracken was willing to have the girl take the horse. But, of course, the bad guy wasn’t. So they kept walking, eyeing each other warily, gun hands twitchy on their hips, having a few coarse, semi-philosophical conversations, McCracken stating his view, delivered in a terse manly way, that one should do some final good in life, the bad guy hawking sandy saliva at the notion. Finally, the two men draw their guns, fire away, miss each other, and kill the horse. The story ends in an existential nightmare as the three characters stare at each other and the dead horse as the sun sets in the horizon.
In writing the story, I learned that I liked my stories to have some sort of twist or surprise. My stories that play off Western motifs – not that all my stories are Westerns by any means, the majority in fact are not – have been described as “Weird Westerns” or “absurdist Westerns” or as “the old West meets magical realism.” Any of those descriptions might fit “Back in Town” which appeared in Missouri Review in the 1990s and opens: “Before I drive my wagon into town, my wife makes me promise that I will not go into the saloon where No-Nose Ed and the other bad men hang out.” A reformed outlaw trying to go straight, of course our sad protagonist does go into the saloon and is drawn back into his days of “drinking and whoring and looting and stealing horses and robbing banks and shooting up the town and using foul language.” In another story, a modern day couple find themselves in the battle of the Alamo, and in another Alamo story, Colonel Travis’s ghost laments that he feels used, goaded to his death by the allure of glory. I’ve written other strange Westerns, and yet I’ve been influenced by reading more traditional Westerns. Some of my favorite books, and movies, too, have been Lonesome Dove, The Searchers, Shane, True Grit, and, in nonfiction, Son of the Morning Star. Television in my youth contributed its influences: Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Maverick, a host of others. My mother, whose grandmother had homesteaded on a small ranch in Texas, added to the milieu with her tales of bandits and Comanche raids and blue Northers descending in fierce squalls of rain and wind on lonely cabins. To this day, dramatic frontier tales, Western Walter Mitty fantasies, lurk in my mind. Combine that with some affection for Donald Barthelme, Borges, and Marquez, and there you go–Western weird.
I owe something else to that first Western in that long ago May, my freshman year in high school, at the tail end of an unimpressive academic year. And I owe something, too, to Brother Al, a kindly young guy just starting out himself, a guy I haven’t thought of much in many years before writing this. If someone were ever inclined to ask me why I became a writer, I would have to think about the question, approach it from various angles, and I’m not sure my answer would be very satisfying either to the interrogator or to myself. But if I were asked when I became a writer, I would say, without hesitation, it was during the course of writing that Western story, in that hot May at the end of freshman year at Antonian High. During those two weeks of bringing the story along from a glimmer of an idea to its completion, I found for the first time a kind of total immersion in my task, a kind of obsession, my own way of galloping across the sun-baked plains.
Robert Garner McBrearty’s many short story publications include two appearances in the Missouri Review, with other stories in the Pushcart Prize, North American Review, Mississippi Review, and New England Review. As well he’s published three collections of short stories. His most recent book is the novella The Western Lonesome Society, which has been described as an “absurdist Western.”
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