Philip Connors is a former Nation intern whose essays have appeared in n+1, The Paris Review and the London Review of Books. He is at work on a book about his time as a fire lookout, to be published by Ecco.
In Norman Maclean's stories, tragedy comes garlanded in a prose style nearly unsurpassed for its bright flashes of remembrance, its whispers out of time.
If the words "first novel" and "arrival of a major American talent" appear on the front flap of a dust jacket, you can almost be sure that the picture on the back flap will depict some impossibly
William Eastlake once gave William Kittredge a piece of advice about
writing as a Westerner. Never allow a publisher to put a picture of a
horse on the cover of your novel: "The people who buy it will think it's
some goddamned shoot-up. And they'll hate it when it isn't."
For more than a century, picking up a "western" meant caressing a myth.
The plot rarely varied. Decent folk who'd left behind the corrupt
world--always somewhere to the east--came to a land of primeval beauty
and promise and set about turning a little chunk of it into a nice,
prosperous garden. But there were a few corrupt souls lurking in the
vicinity, and before long they showed themselves: heedless savages,
horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips. The good folks had no
choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms--often with the aid
of a mysterious and taciturn stranger on horseback. Violence,
regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded. The bad
guys were killed. Our happy homesteaders returned to taming the
wilderness, cultivating their corner of paradise, a little less innocent
but having earned in blood their claim to the land. The taciturn
stranger was saddled and gone by morning, having left neither a card nor
a silver bullet.
Louis L'Amour wrote more than a hundred works of fiction along those
lines, 260 million copies of which are moldering on cheap pulp paper all
over the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century alone,
1,700 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. Our appetite for the
myths of law-bringing and wilderness-taming is as old as America itself.
The pulp western simply spruced it up with big hats, six-guns and blue
roan appaloosas. Hollywood seized on the concept and tinkered with its
variations for more than thirty years; John Wayne had one of the longest
runs of any male movie icon of the past century.
This is the seductive mythology serious writers in the West have to
grapple with as they set out to write the much messier, much less
uplifting story of the true Western experience. They also face an
Eastern literary establishment that is often indifferent or
unsympathetic to their aims. Norman Maclean couldn't find a major
publisher to bite on his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It.
"These stories have trees in them," he was told. And in a snotty review
in these very pages, Edward Abbey was called "puerile" and "dopey" and
was accused of arrogance and xenophobia.
Not that every literary effort to come out of the West deserved
canonization. Kittredge published a collection of stories, We Are Not
in This Together, that borrowed much from the old myth--except the
happy ending, which leaves a rather curdled vision. Despite a laudatory
foreword from Kittredge's friend Raymond Carver, the stories contain a
predictable mix of unfaithful women, barroom hijinks, cold-blooded
killings, guns and knives and whisky and tight-lipped men who, when they
deign to speak, do so not with or even at but past one another.
"My stories were mostly imitations about old men and wounded boys,
reeking of sorrow and sad romance about the ways love is bound to fail,
and could never have been enough anyway," Kittredge eventually admitted.
Thankfully, in 1978, Terry McDonell of Rocky Mountain Magazine
asked Kittredge to write an essay on the theme of "redneck secrets."
Kittredge said he had no idea how to write an essay. A friend who sat in
one of Kittredge's writing workshops at the University of Montana told
me that Kittredge recounted McDonell's advice this way: Give me five
scenes or anecdotes strung together with your own bullshit philosophy.
Five hundred words of anecdote, 200 of your own bullshit, scene,
bullshit, leading to a summation or revelation. It's that easy.
And for Kittredge, it was; turned out he could bullshit better than
most, and in a rugged, poetic and wholly Western prose style. He's since
written mostly nonfiction, looking at the West as a set of true stories
that deserve telling in all their complexity. Like this, from his very
first essay: "A Redneck pounding a hippie in a dark barroom is
embarrassing because we see the cowardice. What he wants to hit is a
banker in broad daylight."
Yee-haw! Now we're getting someplace.
Kittredge's first essay collection, Owning It All, published in
1987 and just reissued by Graywolf, is one of the quintessential books
to read if you want to understand the ferment of the modern West. He
followed that with Hole in the Sky, a memoir that recounted his
youth and early manhood on his grandfather's ranch in southeastern
Oregon, a backlands enclave in a "huge drift of country...pretty much
nonexistent in the American imagination," where "we knew a history
filled with omissions, which can be thought of as lies." Kittredge took
it as his duty to fill in the omissions, most involving violence done to
Native Americans, and he told his own story with astonishing candor: boy
buckaroo, teenage dandy, self-pitying young man, a ranch kid in a
swampland version of Eden that he and his family ultimately ruined
through a combination of greed, pesticides, overly ambitious irrigation
schemes and an overweening lust for property.
Over something like three decades my family played out the entire
melodrama of the nineteenth-century European novel. It was another
real-life run of that masterplot which drives so many histories,
domination of loved ones through a mix of power and affection; it is the
story of ruling-class decadence that we fondle and love, that we reenact
over and over, our worst bad habit and the prime source of our sadness
about our society. We want to own everything, and we demand love. We are
like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums. Our wreckage is
All of this from a book with a horse on its cover.
Hole in the Sky placed Kittredge in a blossoming tradition of
Western writers who can be thought of as anti-mythological. They begin,
not surprisingly, with women--Willa Cather (read Death Comes for the
Archbishop) and Mari Sandoz (Old Jules)--and continue with
writers such as A.B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Marilynne
Robinson and Denis Johnson, whose novel Angels is among the
bleakest visions of the urban West ever committed to paper. And that's
merely a few of the white folk from the mountains and plains, a list
that leaves off the interlopers, Texans, Californians, poets, Hispanics
(Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca) and Native Americans (N. Scott
Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich) who have
enriched the region's literature.
Stegner dreamt of a West that had "a civilization to match its scenery,"
and no other writer did more to bring that transformation about. His
influence can be felt all over a fine anthology edited by Kittredge,
The Portable Western Reader, which Stegner didn't live to see but
would have appreciated as a marker of how far the storytelling culture
of the region had come. "The Westerner is less a person than a
continuing adaptation," he wrote. "The West is less a place than a
process." On the evidence of his new book, Kittredge is in total
In Southwestern Homelands, he tells stories from thirty years of
tooling the freeways and back roads of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New
Mexico, mostly with his longtime love Annick Smith (another fine writer)
and often with a set of golf clubs in the trunk. He goes in search of
history and the earthy flux of the present, and he's as fine a travel
companion as a reader could hope for. I'm with him for all but the golf.
It helps to have friends to show you around an unfamiliar land, and
Kittredge had some good ones, including Eastlake, Abbey and Doug
Peacock, the renowned grizzly-bear expert and model for George Hayduke
in Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eastlake once told Kittredge a
perhaps apocryphal tale in which he and Abbey drove the Southwest's
Interstate highways, felling billboards with a chainsaw. Whether or not
the tale is true--don't you like to think so?--it symbolizes the tension
at the heart of the region's history. What is progress? What are its
costs? And, to paraphrase Charles Bowden, can we not imagine a future in
which we have less but are more?
Everywhere Kittredge goes, these questions haunt the air. At Chaco
Canyon the Anasazi built immaculate pueblos across four square miles
between 1025 and 1100 AD. "The houses were fitted together from tons of
red stone cut in quarries and mortared into tapered load-bearing walls,
five stories high on the curving back side of Pueblo Bonito. Tens of
thousands of pine timbers were cut and trimmed with stone axes in
mountains sixty miles away and brought to Chaco by people without horses
or wheels." They built irrigation systems to channel rainwater toward
domesticated crops. Abruptly, around 1150, they abandoned all of it. To
this day, no one knows for certain why. Drought? Enemy siege? Whatever
the cause, their attempt at constructing a secure homeland failed. The
Anasazi drifted to the north and west. In Canyon de Chelly, they built
cliff houses accessible only by ladders, which they pulled up when they
One millennium later, dreams of an impenetrable fortress persist.
Phoenix, another human settlement fed by diverted water, spreads on the
landscape like a malignant tumor; its gated communities might be
compared to ancient fortified pueblos. One severe or prolonged drought
would also send that city's inhabitants scurrying to more hospitable
climes to the north and west. Aridity, as Stegner incessantly pointed
out, is the defining characteristic of the West. In some distant future,
tourists may gawk at the splendid, dune-covered ruins of Phoenix or
Albuquerque the way we seek out the spooky grandeur of abandoned cliff
The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is among man's most
ambitious efforts to compensate for a lack of rainfall. It flooded what
Kittredge calls "one of the most exquisite runs of landform on earth," a
labyrinth of canyons formed by 10-million-year-old sand dunes compacted
by wind and carved by running water. Abbey once wrote, "To grasp the
nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres
Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible." Kittredge
consoles himself with the thought that canyons and species don't last
forever. I'm surprised it doesn't make him happier to think that dams
are even more ephemeral.
Gated communities, seething barrios, cross-border maquiladoras, crimes
against humans and nature--that's one side of the coin. On the other:
spicy food, entrancing native ceremonies, breathtaking landscapes,
hummingbirds flitting among the saguaro and art that soars into
timelessness, from the overcommodified Georgia O'Keeffe to Mogollon
Mimbres pottery. The exquisite care taken in crafting the Mimbres bowls,
decorated with imagery that made use of communal symbols and stories,
might even be a valuable example for careless book editors. In the
middle of a very moving passage, we find Kittredge viewing "my mother's
powered face that last time before she was interned." You might be
forgiven for momentarily thinking she was a robot on her way to prison
But if you hang with him, you discover him working through one of the
keystone moments of the book. "On Second Mesa, in the village of Walpi,
a man came up while I was walking the balustrade around the edge of the
mesa, and offered to explain the Hopi beliefs. I imagined he was hitting
on me, running some scam, and I turned away." His failure to connect
gnaws at him; he keeps brooding over Walpi until he settles on a
"message" from the ancients: "Be communal, join up, share your goods,
and once in a while give your sweet time away, no charge, pro bono, and
you'll be as close to home as you're likely to be." He could have merely
bought a trinket or a piece of Native art and moved on. Instead, and
despite his failure to connect at first, he was driven to seek some
cross-cultural pollination to take with him as he returns to his own
homeland in Montana. Which ought to be one of the points of travel for
anyone who does it seriously. "Intimacy with otherness is close to
impossible without taking some time to stop playing the game of
anthropologist," he writes. In other words, open up, drop your guard,
talk to strangers. The world awaits: desert and mountain, laughter and
tears, bedrock and paradox.
From the chair where I write this, in a fire lookout tower in the Gila
National Forest of southwestern New Mexico, I can see nearly 100 miles
in all directions. The landscape is multifarious: austere desert to the
east, rising into pinyon and juniper on the foothills and up to peaks
covered in aspen and ponderosa pine, before falling away to mesas and
grassland river valleys to the west. Hard to recall that just a month
ago I was a cog in the corporate journalism machine, a rearranger of
commas, scourge of the split infinitive. "Flight involves a spot of
reinventing the sweet old psychic self," Kittredge writes. Amen.
Everything out my window sings to my soul the way Beethoven's
Archduke Trio speaks to Kittredge's when he's on the road. Yet
the feature I find most intriguing from my perch is a man-made one on
the edge of Silver City: a giant open-pit copper mine that looks like a
gaping wound in the earth. Just above it, at the end of a shelf of
exposed rock, a solitary spire looms. The locals called it the Kneeling
Nun, and through my binoculars I can see why: It resembles the shape of
a woman wearing a habit, bowed in supplication to an ancient altar of
I like to think whoever named it also saw our need for forgiveness. All
across the West, man-made monstrosities punctuate the landscape--dams,
clearcuts, open-pit mines, oil refineries. Some of us silently seethe,
some of us protest, others work quietly toward a new definition of
progress. As we dream and argue our way toward the homeland of the
future, we could do worse than to take our cues from an old boy from a
ranch in the backlands of Oregon, a man who himself learned to take a
few cues from the ancients: "Everything evolves. Nothing lasts. Don't
destroy that which your people depend on. Take care, and plan for the
seventh generation, the long future."