Perhaps more than any other genre, the western seems a relic of the past, to the point where a new literary example – say, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers – is almost automatically viewed as an homage, or a deconstruction, rather than a herald of a resurgence. The problem with this commonly accepted thesis, however, is that the western has never actually gone away – in Canada, at least. From deWitt to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing, Fred Stenson’s The Trade, Claire Mulligan’s The Reckoning of Boston Jim, Ian Weir’s The Death and Life of Strother Purcell, and numerous others, the Canadian western (which differs from its southern brethren) is alive and well, riding the range outside the sprawling CanLit estate.
One of the finest examples of the contemporary Canadian western was 2007’s The Outlander, the debut novel from Toronto poet Gil Adamson. Set in 1903, The Outlander follows 19-year-old Mary Boulton, known as “the widow,” on the run from her brothers-in-law, who want revenge after Mary murders her husband.
Adamson’s long-awaited follow-up, Ridgerunner, returns to the world of The Outlander, with a significant twist. Set a dozen years after the events of the first book, the new novel focuses on William Moreland, the titular ridgerunner, as he tries to provide for the welfare of his son, 12-year-old Jack, following the death of the boy’s mother.
Readers of the earlier book will recall that William had very little patience for the civilized world and preferred solitude to the company of others. Faced with a changing world, however, and a recognition that his son will likely not be able to live as he has lived (and being swayed by the imprecations of Sister Beatrice, a nun in Banff), Moreland returns to his past life of breaking and entering. This time, though, he is stealing money on both sides of the border, using his skills with dynamite and a keen sense of impending danger. Jack, meanwhile, has been left behind in Banff, in the care of Sister Beatrice. This arrangement doesn’t last long, and Jack departs in the middle of the night, headed for the remote family home and into a world of adventures of his own.
Adamson writes with a sly wit and a deep insight into her characters and the natural world but, more significantly, into how the characters and the natural world interact, shaping and being shaped by one another. Her style is heavily descriptive, but she never bores; there are no passages a reader will be inclined to skip. As Jack falls asleep in his family’s cabin, for example, in the bed he used to share with his mother, Adamson writes, “It was full night, a high silver moon, and pure darkness where he lay, the sound of dry aspen leaves clawing the wood floor in gusts, blown across his threshold from the outer dark. He figured the dog had pushed the door open again. It was cold enough that it might have begun to snow. Sampson was right, he’d be glad of his mother’s blanket coat.” Everything packs a significant punch and draws the reader into the novel’s world with a startling immediacy.
If the power of Ridgerunner is its depth, the great strength of Like Rum-Drunk Angels, the new novel from Edmonton writer Tyler Enfield, is its relentless, page-turning pace. Francis Blackstone is 14 years old, living in Nowhere, Arizona, with no real plans for his life. When he falls in love with the governor’s daughter, though, he is made immediately aware of his limitations. “My father is Governor Whitmore,” she tells him. “He owns everything. This hotel, everything. He won’t allow some poor nobody to come sweep me away.” To which the young upstart responds, “Then I’ll find money.” “Just like that?” she asks. “Just like that.”
Despite not even knowing the name of his inamorata, Blackstone hooks up with Bob Temple, an infamous outlaw, and the Blackstone Temple Gang begins to cut a swath across the American West.
What follows is a surreal, often hilarious fracturing of traditional western tropes, imbuing classic elements (train jobs, shootouts, long talks around the campfire) with a spirited post-modern awareness, including Greek mythology, tales from the Arabian Nights, and a surprisingly effective cosmic existentialism. There’s a magic lamp, a rival gang, and pianos raining from the sky.
Like Rum-Drunk Angels is a hoot, with a tender heart at its core. Enfield writes almost telegraphically, with a cheerful ebullience and a strong sense of story. Everything about the book, from its mischievous dialogue to its increasingly strange (though realistically depicted) world seems designed to propel the reader to the next thing, and the next. In essence, the reader becomes Blackstone, moving through event after event, almost rushing to get home to the girl waiting for him. And we both know, reader and Blackstone alike, that it won’t be that easy.
Taken together, Ridgerunner and Like Rum-Drunk Angels demonstrate not only that the western is thriving but that it is vital and fresh. Far from antiquated or old-fashioned, the form admits a freedom of storytelling that allows idiosyncratic creators to stake their claims firmly in their own particular (and often peculiar) landscape and create magic out of the wild.