The Right Coast

March 13, 2006
Guy lit update
By Tom Smith

A few years ago, I made a request for "guy lit" recommendations, saying I was going to put together a list. I have not yet, my little life being as busy as it is. But I still have all the emails, and someday, well, I will try.

In the meantime, a couple of new recommendations.

A.B. Guthrie wrote a series of novels about the American West, including The Way West, and The Big Sky. I just read the third in this series, These Thousand Hills. He writes with such skill and economy, it is easy to miss the considerable literary merit and his depth of his knowledge of the Old West, and all that went with it. Guthrie knows the gear Texans prefered, what the inside of a whorehouse looked like, and what sort of gun fighting and trouble with Indians actually went on at this time and place, as opposed to the Hollywood version. Though, Guthrie had his success in Hollywood -- he wrote the screenplay for Shane.
The themes in TTH are classic and adroitly handled. You see the gains and the losses that come with bringing civilization to Montana (incomplete though that process may have been), including the gains and losses of spirit. The cowboy hero has to ride a narrow trail between irreconcilable differences. He is a rigidly honest man, but to get his stake he has to steal, but he does so from a man who owes him money won in a fair bet. He owes something to the prostitute who helped him get started and whom he loved, but marrying her is out of the question. He owes his wife his fidelity, but he is not going to disown his past either. But he loses and ruins a friend when he won't stand next to him when his friend decides to marry his whore. His brand of Christianity, which means respectability, won't allow that much. Every good thing has to be bought and paid for several times over, and some of that is lost anyway; good men won't finish last, but they won't finish first either. Among many things to like about this book is the absolute fidelity with which it captures the several ways the settlers of the mountain West looked at their struggles, sufferings, and prospects.

On a more contemporary front, if you are an English professor at midwestern state university, in a cooling marriage, and thinking about following your Franco-Caribbean mistress to her native island, where Voudon rituals, Colombian militiamen, and dangerous reefs await, you might want to read this book first, Bay of Souls by Robert Stone. Middle age angst leads to moral dissolution, but at least it is not a long book. Reviewers at Amazon don't like it much, but I couldn't put it down, even if it was ultimately unsatisfying. Ultimately unsatisfying is, I suspect, part of the point of books like this. If you dump your reasonably hot wife for a dangerous, dark, but fairly evil caribbo-vixen, it is not supposed to turn out well for you. All sorts of deep themes are swirling around, but don't seem to amount to much.