When people ask me what I do and I reply that I’m a writer, the first question out of their mouths are, “What do you write?”
And when I reply, “I write westerns,” you should see the look on their faces. Granted I’m a little Hapa dude with a handlebar mustache, an open road Stetson, and tattoos up and down the arms, but I’m still an American kid who grew up on John Wayne and G. I Joe.
I guess what draws me to the western is what draws everyone—the classic image of the lone horseman riding through the American wilderness. Here and there, a ranch, farm, or small town scattered through out the vastness. Might stop for a drink. Might stop for a little bit longer. But always, after the dead are buried, he rides off leaving his contribution to that microcosm of America.
If you really look hard, America was founded by losers. Anyone who had land and rich relatives stayed in Europe, while everyone else took their chances in the New World. But it took guts to do it. Imagine leaving everything you know behind to a place where the only thing one knew was rumor. Every new step, an adventure. Every obstacle, a quest.
What is it about that era that enters our mind and settles in like a stranger coming home? For me, the western is the greatest canvas to paint the human condition. It was a time of reckless ambition and extreme individualism that for a few have been turned into legend on pair with Ulysses. The western is the foundation myth of America. Instead of petty gods and deities, we got cowboys, Indians, gunfighters, scoundrels, endless prairie and sky. But what makes it truly unique, almost a microcosm of humanity, is that it was a mythology that was able to be captured using technology. Imagine if the Greeks had a camera or a printing press. So our heroes are real people, with real faults and ugly sides, but individuals who had made a decision on how they will function with the rest of society.
Yet even with all of the recorded evidence, Americans have found it easier to pick and choose from the western to fit their own perspective; white hats and black hats during the 50’s up against the ambiguous savagery of the 70’s. That’s not to say that was the way of the west, but as a culture we look back at the western to try and explain our actions and deal with the consequences.
As the country changes, we look to the western to see where we are going. We’ve been through tougher times, so what’s so different now? America might have run out of west, but it really wasn’t the land that changed us. It was the imagination of all those drifters to take a wild land, and for better or for worse, turn it into a dream. (We look to the western as a form of American ancestor worship. To take our cues for the future on how they built the past. Failing and falling, only to stand up and get back to work on succeeding.
What I want out of the western is a person who has made bad or wrong decisions and suffered the consequences. Yet, they were able to reinvent themselves, as the west offered a second and at times third chances, which is a uniquely American story. That’s the story of Catfish, the main protagonist in Paris High Noon. If he’s a hero than he’s a failed hero. He could never make the right adaptation to a quickly changing world at the turn of the nineteenth century
I believe the cowboy is a failed romantic hero. He is as much a reflection of his time as he is of ours. How we interact with him is just as important as how we create him. Putting our time in his place and wearing his boots while walking our own life’s path.