The VirginianJune 1, 2012
So, The Virginian is apparently the first proper western, if we’re not counting pulps — and apparently we’re not. It’s also awfully good.
Usually, when I try to read westerns, the protagonist shoots someone, or semi-accidentally kills a horse, or somehow makes an enemy of someone — probably someone with a mustache — over a poker game, and then I realize I’m only two chapters in and give up.
The hero of The Virginian actually does make an enemy over a poker game in the early chapters, and, since all of those other westerns are probably imitating this one, I guess I could blame Owen Wister for all those books I couldn’t finish. It seems silly, though, to blame someone for being better than his imitators.
Not that they really imitated him that closely, as far as I can tell from the first couple of chapters of maybe three books — clearly I’ve spent a lot of time on this. The Virginian isn’t really what I expected, which was an adventure story. I mean, sure, there are adventures, but they’re not the subject of the book. Instead, it’s about a person, sort of, and more than that, about a place and a time. And when you look at it like that, it makes sense that the book is slow paced and meandering. The Virginian doesn’t need to be carefully structured and tightly plotted. It is, though. What seems scattered at first — The unnamed narrator’s meeting with the unnamed protagonist, the new schoolteacher from Vermont, the Virginian’s old friend Steve and new enemy Trampas, the peculiar behavior of a chicken — is actually really cleverly woven together. All these storylines — the clashes between the Virginian and Trampas, the capabilities of Shorty, the problem of cattle theft and the changing face of Wyoming, etc. — reflect and depend on each other. It’s pretty cool.
Some parts of the book are better then others. There are bits that think they’re funnier than they are, bits that are boring, and bits that are dissatisfying — I’d include most of the romance storyline under that heading, mostly because having a man pester a girl until she gives in is about as unromantic as courtship gets. But there are also bits that are kind of transcendent. The obligatory accidentally-on-purpose horse-killing, for example, is horrifying and upsetting and completely gripping. And I don’t want to give anything away, but everything pertaining to the hanging of the two cattle thieves is perfect.
I can nitpick all I want, and there’s a lot of material for it, but mostly this is just a really good book. Everything balances out, and the not-so-great bits are made up for by that bits that are completely wonderful. I suspect I’m still never going to be all that into westerns, but it’s nice to know the genre started off so well.