GIVEN THAT THE MYTH of the West is one of the foundational myths of American culture, it is little wonder that westerns have proved such fertile ground for the imagination. And yet, despite remaining one of our most recognizable and distinctly American genres, the western is often consigned to the ghetto of popular literature, beneath the notice of “serious” readers. In other media, the genre has given us such high-water marks as the television series Deadwood or the films of John Ford, but in literature, with the notable exceptions of Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre, works like Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, and the fine early novels of Elmore Leonard, the western has largely lent itself to postmodern pastiche — if not outright parody. Perhaps we don’t like the written western because it tells us too much about ourselves as Americans. Or perhaps we expect such works to eschew self-examination beyond the grade level of elementary school history textbooks. If it’s the latter, maybe it is time to give western literature another chance.
Expertly plotted, artfully executed, compulsively readable, Ryan Ireland’s Beyond the Horizon offers more evidence that young writers are doing some of their most compelling work in the one-time ghetto of genre fiction, and it marks the debut of a writer with a command of the form, a writer who has something to say. Attempting to engage the mythology of the West as well as of the western itself, Ireland aims high, and thanks to no small amount of vision, talent, and audacity, his novel succeeds on nearly every level.
The book’s premise is simple — sort of. Into a camp on a nameless plateau somewhere east of Colorado comes “the stranger,” as he will be referred to throughout the novel. (Somehow the device never grates.) In the camp, the stranger encounters a man and a woman, similarly nameless, who have been marooned since their wagon broke down. Though the man shares the woman’s misgivings about the stranger’s presence in their camp, the man proves more tolerant and ultimately more gullible than she does. In perhaps the only plot twist that strains credulity, the man allows the stranger to persuade him that he must set out for the apocryphal Fort James, Colorado, in order to enter the woman and her unborn child in the census, lest the “census marshal” arrive at the camp and take them away.
Up to this point, Ireland’s novel reads like a genre exercise, albeit one with a contemporary edge. Thereafter, it explodes into a series of fragmented storylines detailing the man’s journey to Fort James, the stranger’s story (which spans at least two different epochs of American history), an episode from the man’s childhood when he is becalmed on the Sargasso Sea, and eventually the story of an Indian boy-cum-Indian Chief who proves to be the stranger’s nemesis. One plot line intersects with another, and the dexterity with which Ireland resolves these various threads testifies to his facility for the form, as well as his confidence as a debut novelist.
Of course, to write a western is to engage not just with the history of the West, but also with the history of the genre. Even Clint Eastwood — no postmodernist, he — acknowledges this in Unforgiven, equipping one gunfighter with a fawning biographer and letting the protagonist reflect on the fact he’s no hero. In other words, unless we’re reading Louis L’Amour, we expect the western to deal with not only the West, but also with the history of the genre itself, a genre that has perpetuated some of our more troublesome foundational myths, including the myth that the West was empty before Anglo-Americans populated it, not to mention the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Ireland solves this problem — sort of — by setting his novel in a place that might be the locale for a scene out of the Old Testament as readily as the American frontier:
Like those dark places surrounding the world we’ve since created, this country was not yet a frontier, a mystery or a destiny. It simply was. Not until the young man came upon the freshwater stream and the grove of saplings did this become a place for humans. Laughable now to think he felt ownership over the land. Funnier still to hear people talk about the infancy of the nation, how young the country was then. Buried under the grass and topsoil, under layers of shale and granite, the footprints of the Indian boy were fossilized, the bones of the early mammals also preserved in a muddied mixture heated into a brick solid state.
Ireland’s frontier doesn’t resemble a literal landscape so much as it does the idea of a landscape, and that idea allows him to play with those foundational myths: the empty land, the virgin territory.
As well as a page-turner and an adventure story — as well as the obligatory deconstruction of the genre — the novel evolves into a fantastical history of the American West. The stranger — a self-described “man of science and history” — has orchestrated the epic showdown at the novel’s climax in order to best the Indian Chief, the one character who can give him a run for his money. “It was in this revelation that the stranger knew when the time came for the slaughter of his village, he would have to wait for the Indian boy and his hunting party to be gone — the Indian boy was too much like him to be handled like a common man.” The stranger never articulates the reasoning behind his machinations. We recognize his will to power, yet he also exhibits a grimly hilarious joie de vivre: early in the novel, not long after he kills, he describes the world as “beautiful.” He is some kind of trickster, if not the devil himself — “Eres satanás,” the woman tells the stranger. These touches make him a compelling antagonist.
Throughout the book, our sympathies lie with “the man,” who remains a spectator to the epic battle that plays out across history’s grand stage. Often as not, we feel frustrated by his credulity, and because this is a third-person omniscient narrative, we sometimes know more than he does; we’re waiting for him to catch up. That dramatic irony lends pathos to a character that might otherwise fail to engage our sympathy, allowing us emotional access to a story that runs the risk of toppling beneath the weight of its ideas. What motivates the man? “For the briefest of moments the man could not recall the face of his woman. He closed his eyes in a long blink and pictured her. ‘Pretty,’ the man said. ‘Prettier than the woman they put on that coin.’” Cherchez la femme, indeed. The man’s capacity for love serves as an emotional entry point to a story otherwise populated by larger-than-life characters lacking the vulnerability necessary to humanize them.
Ireland’s approach runs the risk of becoming too self-conscious, the author too aware of the tricks up his sleeve. While the names never grate, they consistently remind us that we’re reading mythology. From time to time, one can also hear Ireland’s influences — McCarthy, for instance, in those “ethered shadows,” and (if I’m not mistaken) Brian Evenson — though as the book progresses, Ireland’s declarative sentences accrue a rhythm of their own. More to the point, presenting the Indian Chief clad in a suit of armor made from fused sets of human teeth buys into some of those same reductive stereotypes about the West that the novel otherwise so artfully explodes. But then, by making us root for the Indian Chief — who is after all only trying to avenge his village, which the stranger has annihilated — Ireland gets to have it both ways: he harnesses the seductive power of violence that makes the western so broadly appealing (and presumably, so unpalatable to some readers), yet he manages to rewrite the genre from a contemporary liberal humanist perspective — a perspective that has its flaws, yes, though in Ireland’s world, sentimentality is not one of them.
A gothic western that’s also a fully realized novel of ideas, Beyond the Horizon attempts to confront history without shying away from the ugliness of its source material. Not many contemporary writers have the temerity to address their themes as directly as Ireland does; nor do many debut writers have the confidence to construct a novel like Beyond the Horizon. You can hear that confidence in Ireland’s voice: we trust it to lead us through the convolutions his plot requires, yet he never seems like he’s straining. He attempts to engage with a mythic landscape and with the myth of that landscape, and it’s a testament to his confidence that he succeeds as completely as he does. A visceral, violent entertainment, Beyond the Horizon rewrites the story we tell ourselves about ourselves as Americans, and it embodies that most difficult truth of all: those ugly aspects are part of that story’s appeal.