For those of us at home in the West, literary regionalism has always been a curious matter: When we hear that so-and-so is, for instance, a Southern writer, it is presumed that we grasp a timeless sensibility as distinct to the letters of the region as the drawl is to its conversations.
Much as it's talked about, the same has not been true of that terrain from Texas to Montana, the landscape of the mythic West.
Beyond the geography, the literary West is an ambiguous subject that brings forth both self-consciousness and defensiveness. Which is to say, it's an elusive thread that ties Zane Grey's moralistic riders of the purple sage to Jack Kerouac's bohemian restlessness or that links Wallace Stegner's magnificent memory with Edward Abbey's exuberant adventures.
Now, 74-year-old William Kittredge not only grabs hold of those storytelling connections, but he also makes it look easy. Hoist yourself into the saddle and ride along for this terse tumbleweed of a novel and you'll know what to make of the phrase writing the West.
"The Willow Field" is a small story that traverses a vast land -- the journey of one man's life from hormonal adolescence onward, from a Nevada ranch called the Neversweat and back again via the Depression, Montana, World War II, marriage, in-laws, politics, grandkids and, of course, horses. Succinct. Stoic. Gruff. Told in arid prose, in which the writer allows himself no room to hide, and doesn't need it, the novel is in turn authentically crude and arrestingly vivid.
Although he has published short stories and collaborated on Western paperbacks under the pseudonym Owen Rountree, the Oregon-born and Montana-rooted Kittredge is best known as a memoirist and essayist who writes with the care you might associate with a man whose mother taught him never to waste ink. It's odd to think that this is his debut novel, and odder still after reading it. There is something strangely familiar about the life and travels of his Rossie Benasco -- maybe a little bit like the old neighbor down the street with the faraway look in his eyes.
Nowhere else in the United States (except perhaps Alaska) does panoramic backdrop so dramatically reduce the scale of a single life. Even the biggest characters never match the size of their surroundings. That fact, perhaps, is the wellspring of Western rootlessness. People keep moving to shake off vertigo. It's also the cause of the stolid brevity that characterizes the authentic language of the West. Humans tend to quiet down in the presence of the monumental. John Wayne, you see, did not invent the short-winded cowboy.
Combined, these elements call for distilled storytelling, of which Kittredge proves a master. You might think of Hemingway, himself a Western writer of sorts, who reminded us that the real power of narrative lay in the underwater part of the iceberg. Kittredge, who has taught a generation of writers at the University of Montana, deftly demonstrates the axiom, leaving readers to bring more on this journey than they're told to. His Rossie is not a brooder. Even during the Depression, his forward motion displaces what, in a different part of America, might have been cause for sleepless anxiety. Things seem to have a way of working out even if he doesn't spend his days wringing his hands. Another lesson, perhaps, in the ethos of the West.
Maybe because youth is more vibrant than maturity, "The Willow Field" opens with more imaginative engagement than it offers at the finish. Or maybe it's just that the mythology of a 1930s cattle drive is more appealing than finding Rossie in a cloud of tear gas at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 or listening to the beginnings of the gloomy environmental fights of today.
Near the end of the story, a news reporter asks Rossie if he supports gun control.
In this single sentence, Kittredge scribes the divide between the West that was and the West that is. If you want to be sentimental or melancholy about it, well, you'll have to draw from your part of the iceberg. Rossie retreats -- to horses and to following a loose end that's been on his mind for 50 years.
Writing the West? It's a bit like watching Rossie's favorite roping horse, Blue -- or, for that matter, seeing the author throw his lasso around the story: "He dances like Fred Astaire, and he knows every second where momentum is taking him."
Now, a shift in thoughts. If Kittredge captures the essence of what is meant by Western writing, Rick Bass comes along to complicate things.
In his youth, Bass was a petroleum geologist who followed a wandering path from Texas to Utah to the Deep South to Montana. He earned his membership in the clique of Western outdoors writers in 1989 with a brilliant book, "Oil Notes," which took us along on a different journey -- his transformation from oil prospector to naturalist.
Bass has published more than a book a year since then in an ever-expanding oeuvre of essay, journalism and fiction. His latest work is a collection of 10 short stories, "The Lives of Rocks," and it takes us back to square one in the conversation about writing the West. Ergo: Is it enough to live in the West and have written about the West to permanently stamp your work as Western writing, even if the geography wanders elsewhere?
Let me pause and say that, apart from "Oil Notes," I've never shared the enthusiasm for Bass that I hear when Western writers or environmentalists gather and talk about themselves. Truthfully, I haven't given much thought as to why, figuring that some things boil down to taste alone. Surely a man with such prolific determination and with so many titles to his credit doesn't deserve to be nitpicked by the likes of me. I did it once a decade ago in a review of a book that I thought was disappointingly rushed, and that's enough.
This time around, though, I returned to Bass with a different purpose. And I came to see him from another vantage entirely. A Western writer? No, I think Bass more properly belongs elsewhere, never mind his P.O. box.
A young love triangle at play in the toxic waters flowing into the Gulf Coast, a couple on a canoe trip on any river, a polemic plea on behalf of forests of the Yaak Valley in northwest Montana, where the author lives, a woman's bittersweet struggle with cancer in the geography of her own heart -- Bass' characters, the dimensions of their lives and the writer's regard for language, all these things rise less from the sensibilities of the West than from the loamy South. And we know what that means, right?