Book Review : Exploring a Darker Side of the Old American West

Heart of the Country by Greg Matthews (W. W. Norton: $17.95)

No doubt Sir Lancelot bore himself with a grace and breeding of which our unpolished fellow of the cattle trail has only the latent possibility; but in personal daring and skill as to a horse, the knight and the cowboy are nothing but the same Saxon in different environments. . . . --Owen Wister

Ma, do cowboys eat grass?

No son, they're part human.

The dream of the heroic knight reborn as the romantic cowboy has enthralled us for generations. Shane and the Duke were saintly men who guarded our moral fiber and our national pride. It is an image of the cowboy that lingers until today in the ideas of manhood expressed by our Marlboro men and our Presidents.

On reading "Heart of the Country," the cowboy image may never be the same again. The old West is portrayed not as the Promised Land but as a human purgatory, and the cowboy and the pioneer are depicted not as romantic heroes but as ordinary men--often evil men.

It is a gutsy, raunchy, rough, blunt, down-to-earth (or mud) novel in which little is sacred. The epic and panoramic human view of the West is one rarely seen before; for it presents a unique and original picture of our mythic heroes.

The creation of the hero, Joe Cobden, is a stroke of genius. He is mixed-blood Indian, brilliant, well read in the classics, a scholarly young man brought up in a St. Louis doctor's Victorian home after his mother died aborting him when she was thrown from a stagecoach. A courageous young man, he is nonetheless an outcast in both the Indian and white worlds, for he is a hunchback, ugly and wizened, the "lowest of men" who feels that he is "a charlatan performing for whites." He is no "noble red-man"; he is an ignoble one.

Escape to the Frontier

A minority within a minority, he escapes to the prairies of Kansas and the pioneer town of Valley Forge. On the frontier he becomes a renowned buffalo hunter, cowboy and a Western hero though "what may be termed the real West was as unknown to him as Arabia."

In the wilderness his learning is of little use to him. He sees the West as "a man's world, impervious to human emotion," a "land of demi-gods . . . a place of unreal substance unrelieved by moral precept, a wide-open land laid bare for Mammon" where men and nature struggle for men's souls.

Not even being part-Indian protects him from a desire to possess land, for he knows of no ancestral land of his tribe. He belongs to no tribe. "He knew nothing of Indians, was not particularly interested in learning . . . his feeling for Indians was basically that of the white man." He was a white Indian who had denied his Indian-ness until he was forcibly reminded of it.

The cast of characters in the novel fit this divided environment: the Rev. Wilkes, who is haunted by his incestuous love of his daughter; the town undertaker, Pike, who makes love to the corpses in his coffins; his wife, Jessica, who is driven mad by her husband and sees visions of her mother being buried alive and rising from her grave; the mentally and morally retarded Calvin Puckett, who was brutally abused as a child, and spends his days digging for non-existent bones; his son, Noah, into whose ear Joe poured fatherly knowledge, but who betrays him; and the Sheriff Perce Lafferty, who is suspicious of all of them but can find no crimes they have committed except against themselves.

Search for Identity

If the readers occasionally lose their way in the maze of characters, so does Joe. The hero disappears from his own narrative for long stretches. Perhaps to rest. He is missed. As in many Gothic novels, this Gothic Western joyously revels in the details of its gory stories of sin-without-salvation and it is Joe's difficult search for his identity that is the one light that shines in the darkness of the prairie sun.

Black humor on the frontier? Maybe so, but there are not many laughs except for a few scatological jokes that are not very funny.

As a hunchback, the hero assumes love will be denied him. It is. He sets forth, in turn, to become the most masculine and virile of men.

Not even the presence of gentle Phoebe, the daughter of the undertaker, wholly cleanses the vulgar talk and the behavior of the men. She is offered as the epitome of the virginity of women in this "man's world"; the "femaleness of her body coming right out through her dress."

In all of this there is an obvious intent to portray the settlers as human beings with human failings, not as demi-gods. Matthews succeeds too well. Phoebe voices what might well be the author's creed: "There are only people and animals and the mountains and seas. And the sky." But, that has always been true of Western novels; the real hero and heroine are the earth and the heavens.

Many have wondered why the epic struggle for the West has produced so few epic novels. In the "Heart of the Country" they may have gotten more than they asked for.

Darker Underside

Gary Matthews is an Australian novelist who has written an Australian Western. It is a bold and blasphemous story that questions our beliefs and ideas about the old West. And yet, in showing the darker underside of our heroic myths, it enhances the breadth of life on the frontier by adding a new dimension to that experience; it does not diminish it.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World