The de-mythologizing of the Wild West in popular culture began with the Italian spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. These movies eschewed the idealized and heroic Hollywood vision of the West and instead emphasized violence, moral ambiguity, and dirty realism. The Italian influence continues to this day on both screen and page. In literature, it reached a zenith with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the operatic saga of a bunch of brutal outlaws blazing a path of murder and destruction across the 19th-century American frontier.
Clifford Jackman’s debut novel, with its story of a gang of psychopaths led by an almost mystical figure named Augustus Winter, is very much in this vein (Jackman names McCarthy as an important influence). Like McCarthy’s Judge, Winter is a Nietzschean superman who represents a brutal natural philosophy beyond good or evil, justice or law. As one early witness to Winter’s nihilistic “force of will” puts it: “What could you do with will like that? Where would it take you? What could stop you? How would it all end?”
Where it takes Winter is on an episodic journey that sees his adopted “family” first joining together during Sherman’s march, resurfacing to play a role in the murderous Chicago ward politics of the 1870s, fighting both natives and settlers in Phoenix and Oklahoma, and finally arriving in a California landscape dotted with oil derricks.
The broad canvas means that in addition to being a rousing novel full of exciting action sequences, Jackman’s book also offers an interpretation of American history. (His characters can get rather talky when it comes to presenting their thoughts on the matter.) At bottom is the fairly simple notion that the Winter family form a microcosm of manifest destiny and Darwinian capitalism. They don’t represent the last breath of freedom before the closing of the frontier so much as the germ from which the larger chaos that is “civilization” will bloom.
Jackman can’t match McCarthy’s overwrought rhetorical style, but he has nevertheless written a book capable of standing in that company, which is high praise indeed. The Winter Family is a philosophical spaghetti western that doesn’t stint on the tomato sauce, served up with flair.