Frank Bergon: New Old West Mystifier

January 1, 2022   •   By Allen Wier

FRANK BERGON has produced a significant body of fiction, essays, literary criticism, environmental writing, and edited collections of Stephen Crane, Lewis and Clark, and naturalist John Burroughs. If we understand place in literature to mean much more than geography, Bergon is a writer of place, and the place where meaning resides for him is the American West, especially California’s San Joaquin Valley.

A Bergon novel is a Möbius strip of surfaces, in which left can become right, and right can become left. He writes without boundaries, bending historical facts into convincing fictions and bringing the intrigues of storytelling to nonfiction. In his 2020 memoir in essays, The Toughest Kid We Knew, he tells of a particular late afternoon when he was 10. Returning to the family ranch house after burning trash and feeding chickens, he saw his father “outlined in bronze sunlight against the west-facing windows.” He establishes a commemorative tone as he details the boy crossing a threshold to see his bronzed father. “Bronzed” reflects the setting sun of his father’s age and connotes the memorials of plaques and cenotaphs. The “threshold” is the divide between a childhood event and the adult recollection of enduring experience. Bergon makes palpable the closeness of father and son: “He called me by the nickname only he used, ‘Stay there, Buck. Look at this.’” The boy’s location in both place and growth is important:

I stood in the doorway between rooms. My father dangled from his fingers a tricolored silk scarf, resembling a cobra with a green body, flared white hood, and wedge-shaped scarlet head. The exoticism of the colored foulard in contrast to the ordinariness of everything around it, including my father, stunned me.

Retrospection allows for this bifocal evocation. In memory he, as a boy, is caught in time between the rooms of childhood and adulthood. His up-close view is not plain old red but “scarlet.” At 10, he may not have had exoticism or foulard in his vocabulary, but those words give us the long-distance view of the adult writer, who is now obligated by the memory of a not-ordinary sensation (he was “stunned”) to give the reader a scene worthy of the buildup. The next paragraph fulfills the anticipation:

Holding the snakelike silk by its corner tail, he reached down with his free hand, grabbed the triangular head, and tied the silk into a knot. Slowly the red head, pointing toward the floor, curled upward and moved by its own power through the knot, untying itself. A dizzying sensation engulfed me. I felt myself floating free from the everyday ranch and the earth itself. For the first time I’d seen real magic. My way of seeing the world never again would be the same.

Such captivating sleight of hand makes an apt figure for Bergon’s writing, which moves from fiction to nonfiction as smoothly as a silk scarf slithers through a deft magician’s fingers. Mid-paragraph, “the snakelike silk” is an animate snake that uncoils itself. In myriad small ways that add up and matter, the reader’s way of seeing the world is both widened and focused.

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In his keynote speech for the 2016 Western American Writing Contest awards ceremony, Bergon cited “credibility” as the ethic of both fiction and nonfiction. He went on to say that the burden of proof for credibility in nonfiction is verification, and for fiction it is verisimilitude. Given his commitment to credibility, it’s not surprising that Bergon often takes as raw material events from history — Western history and personal Western history.

The three novels that make up Bergon’s Nevada trilogy are set in remote mountains and empty desert. His characters are in these isolated places mostly by choice. Some are seeking to find themselves, and some are seeking to lose themselves. The trilogy covers a century of Western history beginning with Shoshone Mike (1987), which follows a posse chasing a band of Shoshone people in the winter of 1911. It is followed by The Temptations of St. Ed & Brother S (1993), the story of two monks seeking a mystical vision who get involved in fights still being waged over nuclear waste, and concludes with Wild Game (1995), which fictionalizes an actual murder and manhunt to render the unjustness of (Old and New) Western justice.

Inspired by the facts — and by inaccurate reports of the actual massacre in 1911 of a band of Shoshone — Shoshone Mike begins with Sheriff Graham Lamb of Winnemucca reflecting on a days-old letter from his wife, Nellie, who has been visiting her sister in San Francisco. Not until the fourth page of the novel does the sheriff think about the posse searching the northwest desert for the killers of four men, including three Basque sheepherders. These four pages spent thinking of his wife before turning to the crisis at hand reveal Lamb’s conflict between his marriage and his job. On Lamb’s desk is a telegram from Nellie saying she will arrive home that afternoon on the Southern Pacific. Beneath the telegram lies a newspaper with a false report declaring: “[I]t was now definitely settled that the deaths and mutilations of the four stockmen were the work of a large band of Indians.” These false truths fomented the hysteria that led to the massacre of eight members of a Shoshone band and the death of one posse member.

The Möbius twists in Shoshone Mike are manifested in multiple, shifting points of view, and Bergon conjures a convincingly unique voice for each lead character. The first chapter chronicles the few minutes of Lamb’s clock-watching before he leaves to pick up his wife, but his consciousness takes the reader backward and forward in time and to and from separate places to introduce essential elements of the story line.

Subtle parody adds ironic dimension to Bergon’s characters. Sheriff Lamb is the tough lawman who always gets his man, but this sheriff relies on reason, not a quick draw and blazing pistols. Necessarily a wayfarer, Shoshone Mike makes headdresses, spears, and arrows — the accoutrements of Old West battles — but he moves his family around, living off the land to avoid a choiceless choice between whites who are crowding them out and the only alternative whites offer: life fenced in on a reservation. Here and in his other books, Bergon uses a dark version of roughhouse Western humor to reveal the often-ironic effects of romanticizing the Old West.

True to historical fact, the sheriff is not there when the inevitable massacre occurs. Bergon renders the battle through the point of view of a character named Mort West, a metonym for the “death of the West.” Lamb’s wife, Nellie, is richly ambiguous. Perhaps representing the New West, she loves cosmopolitan San Francisco and writes to her husband of her visit to the University of California where she skips a visit to see a Native American at the anthropology museum in order to enjoy ice cream under a brightly striped umbrella. But the New West has not shed all the views of the Old, and she names Native Americans “savages.” Sheriff Lamb pays attention to the world around him. His life may depend on what he sees. His observations of place imply the kind of deep love that need not be loudly proclaimed. His watching over Nellie is similar:

Almost a month had passed since Nellie had left Winnemucca to visit her sister. Lamb originally had planned to go with her to Reno. After the fall elections he’d looked forward to a diversion to share with her since she was bored with the usual Sunday drives, whist parties, theater parties, and occasional movies in Winnemucca. She wanted to go to San Francisco. He offered to send her. She wanted both of them to go to San Francisco.

His job wouldn’t let him, and with that admission, although they’d been married twelve years and had two children, he knew again with a dull ache that their time as lovers was over, and if they were to stay married, they had to learn, as a lot of people did, to become friends again.

Changes within the Lambs’ marriage parallel the replacement of the myths and sensibilities of the Old West with those of the New. Sheriff Lamb’s strengths and capabilities lie in his patience and sense of justice rather than in might and violence. He seeks ways to accommodate friendship in his community as he does in his marriage.

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The long title of The Temptations of St. Ed & Brother S, with its abbreviations and ampersand, is the first clue to elements of the absurd in the second novel. The misunderstood, mythic code of the Old West has become the neon code of greed and immediate gratification in the New West. In perhaps Bergon’s most inventive, overtly innovative novel, two monks, Edward St. John Arrizabalaga, a quixotic abbot with a vision of a monastic order for the New West, and young Brother S., a former Oregon lumberjack, attempt to bring the ancient traditions of monasticism to the Nevada desert in the mid-1990s.

The monks get caught up in a conflict with the United States Department of Energy over its plans to store nuclear waste. The green light at the end of Gatsby’s dock is reflected in the multicolored glow of Las Vegas just 240 miles away. As he does in Shoshone Mike, Bergon creates organic parallels that are simultaneously comical and heartbreaking. The technological New West requires a new kind of faith, a spirituality different from St. Ed’s mystical vision for a meditative community. New West diversity is dramatized by a variety of characters, including the two monks, a government nuclear test site agent, modern-day Shoshone people, a hermetic Basque prospector, a Mexican American Bureau of Land Management worker, and Nathan Spock who hosts a Las Vegas TV talk show. When Spock (a name evoking the progressive pediatrician, whose books altered American parenting, and the emotionless human-Vulcan of Star Trek) interviews him, St. Ed says, “It’s spiritual energy that interests me, not nuclear energy.” A rich and rambunctiously comical conflict in the novel is older than the Old West: the longings and sins of the flesh.

No stereotypical priest, St. Ed is a walking contradiction. Once married, half-Basque and half-English, religious yet profane, St. Ed is a mix of the mythic Old West and the actual New West. He has, in Brother S, both a compatriot and a kind of foil. By the novel’s end, Brother S returns to worldly life, reborn as a Las Vegas disc jockey and renamed The Pharaoh of Love, a public opponent of the nuclear waste dump. When the sheriff attempts to take him in, Brother S, like an Old West hero, escapes on an antiquated Farmall tractor. In a darkly comical scene written in short, declarative sentences with vivid, impressionistic details, Bergon mixes the imagery of the 14th-century monastic classic The Cloud of Unknowing with the nuclear cloud. The former monk jerks and bucks his way toward the nuclear waste dump in the Shoshone Mountains. The tractor plummets down a steep incline, and Brother S’s perception of the landscape rushing up toward him is described as if it were the vision of a Native American animist who perceives at once the interior and the exterior world:

It was as if he could look into the depths of the earth. The ground became crystal. Deep; in its den a kangaroo rat breathed softly. A ticking sound came from earthen tunnels as the sticky feet of iridescent ants scurried over grains of sand. The heartbeats of a coyote thumped between the soft falling taps of its footpads as it trotted into sight, its yellow eyes shining. In a blaze of whiteness a moonfaced owl lurched upward, its wings radiant and rhythmic in the ecstasy of flight, rising into the crystal night.

This tragicomic novel ends inevitably with a new beginning. St. Ed and six sundry followers set off in a blue bus and an old black pickup to continue to seek the Cloud of Unknowing in the nuclear New West.

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The final novel in the trilogy, Wild Game, also reinvents historical events — the 1981 murder by Claude Dallas of two game wardens who track him to his remote camp to arrest him for poaching. The actual Claude Dallas committed a double murder, and, after his conviction, escaped from prison. Before he was recaptured, Dallas, who self-consciously emulated Old West outlaw heroes, was celebrated in the news and made the hero of two books and a TV movie. Bergon’s novel renders truths the media falsified. A fake hero, Dallas is a figure for Bergon’s exploration of the lasting and detrimental effects — on the environment and the culture — of prettifying self-serving violence.

Like Dallas, Billy Crockett (whose name is an amalgam of Billy the Kid and Davy Crockett) is a self-proclaimed survivalist who gets away with illegally trapping and killing game out of season. Bergon adds to the two game wardens who confront Crockett a third character, Jack Irigaray, a Basque wildlife biologist. At the unavoidable (Old West) shootout, Crockett kills the two wardens and makes Irigaray help cover up the crime. Then Crockett wounds Irigaray and escapes. Irigaray’s wife wants him to forget Crockett and work on their strained marriage, but for the wildlife biologist, the needs of the community outweigh the needs of the individual. Bergon complicates the quest for redemption when Irigaray recognizes himself in the description of the criminal-at-large published in the Reno Gazette-Journal:

When Jack read the description in the newspaper, he was stunned to realize that the physical description, except for the glasses and ponytail, could have fit him. Crockett’s hair was lighter and probably should’ve been called blond, but otherwise he and Crockett were the same height and weight, had the same color eyes. In the past, Jack had even worn a beard. They were the same age, born two months apart –– but at opposite ends of the country. Jack knew Crockett wasn’t a true westerner.

The introduction to the anthology Looking Far West (1978), which Bergon co-edited with Zeese Papanikolas, describes Teddy Roosevelt’s account of capturing three bandits in the Dakotas in the 1880s: “[T]he outlaws’ saddlebags were crammed with dime novels about daring desperadoes.” The introduction continues: “Again and again, the West shows that when a state of mind finds expression in action, myth becomes history, just as history is always aspiring to become myth.” The interplay between history and myth, fact and fiction, authenticity and aspiration — the continuing influence of Old West myths on New West conflicts — resonates in Bergon’s writings.

Irigaray eventually recaptures Crockett, but in the process, he loses what matters most. The recurring myth is not yet finished with Jack Irigaray. Within four years, Crockett again escapes. Now a divorced, recovering alcoholic who has lost his job, license, and car, Irigaray again tracks Crockett, this time to Mexico. By the end of Wild Game, Irigaray’s redemption is the realization that he’s come to terms with who he is, and it is rendered in words as straightforward and honest as the man himself:

We’re all creatures of habit, making the same mistakes over and over again. Life gave everyone two, sometimes even three chances, to change their ways, but if they didn’t respond, life didn’t care. It quit giving chances. That was probably the only thing Jack had learned in the eight years he’d spent chasing Billy Crockett. But at least he’d learned it. He hoped Billy would too.

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Born in Ely, Nevada, Bergon was five when his family moved to a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, so he can claim both places as home. Beginning writers are often told to write only about what they know, but that’s incomplete advice. We don’t always know what we know. Birthright is not the only connection that makes one’s sense of place authentic.

As many do, Bergon left home. He went east, first to attend Harvard and then to teach at Vassar, but he carried with him a birthmark of the West. “There may come to be new places in our lives that are second spiritual homes,” Eudora Welty says, and Bergon has written meaningfully about his current homeplace of Martha’s Vineyard. But the place that his work fully compasses is the American West, especially the San Joaquin Valley, which no other living Westerner has seen more clearly. His deft, chameleon-like shifting of voices reflects the diversity of this inimitable place and reminds us that language is the place we all inhabit.

Self-reliant individualism has been romanticized by claims that the code of the West originated with resolute gunfighters, but Bergon’s novels and essays make it clear that the rules were communal and evolved from the remote nature of the place and the diversity of the peoples struggling to survive there. The popularized, mythic view celebrates these ways of being as venerable. Bergon allows that sometimes that’s true, but he convincingly shows that all too often the romantic view tries to justify brute strength and violence.

His California trilogy employs a novel, Jesse’s Ghost (2011); a collection of essays, Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man (2019); and a memoir, The Toughest Kid We Knew (2020); to render his wide-ranging field of vision and capture the cycle of life in the San Joaquin Valley. Empathetic without being romantic, Bergon convincingly depicts a place that is decidedly unique even as his literary art shapes it into a powerfully charged image for the whole American West. These dusty, empty-looking fields grow much of the nation’s food, and the huge farms are central to environmental and cultural conflicts in the midst of climate change and political polarization. Agricultural opportunity has drawn peoples of different races and backgrounds to the valley. Novelist Wright Morris declared, “Where there is little to see, there man sees the most.” In a review of Jesse’s Ghost, Susan Salter Reynolds said, “Bergon doesn’t romanticize any of it, allowing us to find a way into these lives. He grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, yes, but there’s more than keen observation and good listening at work here.”

The California trilogy is so well planted that the reader lives for a while amid the landscape, weather, buildings, animals, and people, and the place merges with the reader’s life. For a relatively small geographical area, the valley has long been home to a remarkably rich racial and ethnic population. In his most recent two books especially, Bergon writes about the valley’s diversity and references his own Basque heritage as well as people who are Béarnese, Native American, Armenian, Italian, Sikh, Assyrian, Japanese, German, Chinese, Swedish, Russian, Portuguese, African American, and Mexican. He also writes of the Okies who migrated to the valley during the Great Depression and into the 1940s.

Return trips home have shown Bergon how conflicts and alliances shift over time, especially in such a diverse population. Content and form being inseparable, perhaps the diversity of place persuaded Bergon to employ not only fiction but also to amalgamate the varied nonfiction genres of personal essay, criticism, informal interview, memoir, and dramatic storytelling to enable the reader to share his bifocal view: the up-close scrutiny of an observant child and young person, as well as the farsighted, retrospective view of the adult that child has become, now returning home, as he does when rendering the memory of his father magically transforming a silk handkerchief into a serpent.

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The California trilogy begins with Jesse’s Ghost, and I can’t imagine a better beginning for this novel, a tragic elegy for the Western and American Dream:

The story of how I came to kill my best friend keeps pressing on my brain like a dream so bad I can feel it, but I can’t remember it whole. In bed at night when I can’t sleep –– just about every night anymore –– bits of my life buzz and clatter in my skull. “I will haunt you when I’m dead,” my mother told me all the time when I was a kid, yet the person who haunts me now is the friend I loved more than my momma or my daddy or even my own brother. His name was Jesse Floyd.

Jesse’s Ghost is another of Bergon’s fictions based on reported facts. In Fresno in 1968, one boyhood acquaintance of Bergon’s, Gary Bolding, shot another, Billy Carter, who had slept with Bolding’s estranged wife. The title essay of The Toughest Kid We Knew is about that kid, Billy Carter, and the essay about the actual characters and the violence they knew enriches the novel, just as Jesse’s Ghost enriches the essay.

Jesse’s Ghost accesses the psyches of Okie migrant men whose fate was hard labor and social shunning. Not surprisingly, Okie kids learned to defend themselves against even the wrong kind of eye contact. Fistfights were ritualized, and pals fought one another almost as boxers in training. Unlike boxers, they wore no gloves and followed no rules, except one that Sonny recalls his stepdaddy driving home: “It don’t matter who wins. Quitters are the only losers.”

Just as violence twists through the myth of the Old West, it coils around the inhabitants of the valley. Bergon’s descriptions of the anything-goes slugfests are cinematic. Short sentences deliver sensory details so sharp they hurt. Bergon’s fistfights make a chaotic beauty akin to what Sam Peckinpah achieves in the memorable final montage of The Wild Bunch. Some viewers see controversy in making a deadly shootout appear as graceful as ballet, but in Jesse’s Ghost, the graphically brutal is filtered through the perspective of Sonny’s upbringing and experience.

A boyhood friend of both Sonny and Jesse, who now writes for a San Francisco newspaper, interviews Sonny about the shooting years ago. Sonny confesses: “You can’t ignore the pleasure of it. There’s no better feeling than kicking the shit out of somebody.” Both men are unaware that Sonny’s wife, Lynette, has overheard them. She blindsides Sonny (and the reader) when she speaks: “None?” she asks. “None in the world?”

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All of the nonfiction characters who live vividly in the pages of Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man are immigrants or migrants of one sort or another. The title names two iconic figures, each a longtime friend of Bergon’s: Fred Franzia, creator of the best-selling wine of all time, and Darrell Winfield, the cowboy who became the legendary Marlboro Man. These men put a public face on Bergon’s New Old West. Both men maintain singular values of the Old West while they are keenly aware of the complex realities of the New West. Racism, poverty, environmental change, land management, corporate finance, water rights, and isolation have long affected life in the American West, but now they carry a new urgency. Water rights impact not just herds of cattle or sheep but also urban populations.

One compelling thread that ties together the essays in this volume is the difference between perception and reality. Readers of Bergon’s earlier books will recognize recurring themes when he restates the distortion of the code of the West:

[T]he true American cowboy isn’t the self-sufficient, independent, gunslinging loner so popular in American fiction and film. The cowboy code honors cooperation as well as individual toughness and self-reliance in daily tasks […] the most valuable cowboy trait is good judgment, along with enjoyment of hard work, nonchalance about money, indifference to fame, reluctance to whine, and love of the physical world.

Bergon presents conflicting ideologies and impulses with balance and wisdom, yet he is unflinching about the truths gained by a close look at our collective history:

Too often misunderstood and invoked to justify impulsive violence and overpraise toughness, the cowboy code actually honors comradeship in a world of dangerous work and marginal survival. Even in the Old West, communal values prevailed. The brigades of mountain men trapping from the San Joaquin River to the Rockies and early cowboys on trail drives in California or Texas depended on each other, the natural world they lived in, and the government of their country for protection and economic support. The true story of the American West is not of independence but of interdependence.

These words would be meaningful in any time, but read in the shadow of our present time of suspicion and separation, they are more than instructive; they may be prophetic.

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Frank Bergon’s prose style and inclusive vision bring fictive magic to his nonfiction. The Toughest Kid We Knew, “a personal history,” completes the trilogy. Events in this book come chronologically before events in Two Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man, but there’s wisdom in Bergon’s decision to first present the essays and then take us back in time and deeper into the personal landscape of the memoir. As the true story of the West is of interdependence, the books that make up the California trilogy are organically linked, and when they are read together, the reader’s experience is intensified.

The Toughest Kid We Knew is in part a book about writing. The silk handkerchief magic trick his father performed for him inspired Bergon’s own proficiency as a magician, and magic recurs in his work, vivifying the differences between appearances and reality. Exploring our need to come up with supernatural, even spiritual, explanations for the inexplicable, Bergon cites Harry Houdini’s description of himself: “I am a mystifier, which means I am an illusionist … I am human … But I do tricks nobody can explain.”

Bergon’s dramatization of human consciousness elevates memory above nostalgia. In the visceral and moving chapter “The FBI Rancher,” Bergon describes how he idolized his father until the man’s growing alcoholism fostered bitterness and “estrangement replaced affection.” In the next paragraph, Bergon gives us the amazing “and then” associated with storytelling, though it may come from the actual coincidences of our daily lives when time intersects with events to create plot. Bergon writes: “Now here comes the mystery of life after death, what’s remembered and what’s forgiven. Death shakes away the flaws not essential to our character and illuminates the things that are.”

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Allen Wier was a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the author of four novels, including Blanco and Tehano, and two story collections, including his most recent book, Late Night, Early Morning. He died on December 4, 2021, from complications from a stroke. A remembrance of him is forthcoming in LARB, which extends condolences to his family and his many students and friends.

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Featured image: “Frank Bergon in West Tisbury, 2019” by Jrnkrdn is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.