Contrary to popular belief, westerns have never gone away. They have always formed a staple of American literature. A short roll-call would include Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Dorothy Johnson, J.P.S. Johnson, Tom Lea, Max Evans, Max Crawford, Dan O'Brien, not to mention Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and various younger writers.
Rudolph Wurlitzer has always been a writer of the west, though not a writer of westerns. Yet it's hardly surprising that, with The Drop Edge of the World, he should be adding his name to the above. Even if this is a novel that seems to have more in common with Ed Dorn's epic poem Gunslinger or Tom Spanbauer's exquisite novel The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon, than with either Cormac McCarthy or earlier traditionalists.
Having evolved out of a screenplay that made the rounds int he 1980s, the accomplished Wurlitzer has produced a mind-bending western that, like his characters, between worlds. Well-researched, it can hardly be called a straight western. Some have compared it to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. In fact, of those who have, some have even said that Wurlitzer should sued for plagiarism. However, based on the novel alone, I find it hard to see any similarities other than it's picaresque quality. Funny, surreal, grotesque and profound all at the same time, The Drop Edge... is, in many respects, a million miles from his earlier, semi-minimalist and much loved, at least by me, novels like Nog, Flatland, Quake and Slow Fade. No doubt it's partly the product of spending all that time with Sam Peckinpah on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, whose screenplay he wrote, or churning out all those heavy-set words and one-liners in his screenplay for Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop.
The main character, Zebulon, could be a Native American or just someone who, by circumstances, has, through no choice of his own, gone native, so embedded is he in that semi-rural world circa 1845, so much so that it doesn't matter what he is or is not. Constantly interceded upon by his would-be brother Hatchet Jack, whom Zebulon's father won in a poker game. The two men are at odds. Hatchet Jack, as a child, came close to killing Zebulon, and, as an adult, would still like to do so. Instead, he is fated to save Zebulon's life on various occasions. Zebulon, like apparently half the world, is on his way to California. En route he encounters Delilah, a woman of uncertain race, and the companion/slave of a Russian prince. Whether Zebulon is in love with her or her with him is another matter. What is certain is that they are fated to be together and can barely escape each other's presence.
An absurdist western, these characters have only a tenuous grasp on reality, all they can do is keep moving, trapped as they are in some kind of Beckettonian universe. Zebulon on a horse ambling through the landscape, is unable to fall asleep because he doesn't want to dream or, worse, end up in someone else's dream. Meanwhile, they are fated to keep on, to pursue something or other, with, if not goldfield riches, no apparent reason. As Delilah puts it, "Is that all we need? A map? Is that why we're here? To ride on, and then on some more, and then some more again, after someone who rides after us, or maybe ahead of us, because we don't know how to ride after ourselves?"
Moving from place to place and back again, Zebulon and company encounter ships, jails, cantinas, pool halls, Indian encampments, etc., and in each place they encounter the same violence, the same stupidity, the same wisdom and the same hunger for gold or just plain survival. Over and over again:
"From the moment Delilah slid the cards across the table, Zebulon felt caught inside a repetition that he was unable or unwilling to back away from. He had been trapped here before, over and over, ever since he had first seen Delilah in the Panchito saloon. Once again he was in the same dimly lit cantina with most of the oil lamps smashed or burned out, the same restless piano chords, a mural of an unfinished journey over the bar, a deck of rubbed and bent cards, two whores staring at them from their bar stools, and now, Delilah dealing a hand where winning and losing had already been decided. And there was something else. Something that he felt doomed never to be able to realize or acknowledge."
An unfinished journey, for sure, the meaning of which is left to the reader to realize or acknowledge. Published in 2008 by a relatively small press (Two Dollar Radio), this one slipped by without much fanfare. But, then, I guess that, to one degree or another, was always the case with Wurlitzer, which is why he can keep on keeping on, just like the characters in his novel. As real a western as any traditionalist has written, and proof, if one needs any, that the genre is alive and kicking. Now as it has always been.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.