Oakley Hall, 1958
The western genre is a funny thing. The genre is a uniquely American mythology populated by noble and ignoble characters that stand for idealized notions of right and wrong. This mythology of the great American west of the latter 19th century stands for a time and place when men and woman sought out the last possibility of the American dream: to grab a piece of land that was still untouched and pure and to make something of that purity in that vast expanse of unpopulated desert beyond the reach of governance and country.
As is often told through the many stories of the western genre, the frontier spirit of the good natured prospecting and cattle ranching citizens were often troubled by the wild natured and free shooting outlaws of the wild west. The gunslinging hero is generally a loner that wanders into town to redeem the helpless citizens from the constant pressure of outlaw terrorization. I am not particularly a fan of this romantic idealization of the genre because it is often told from a black and white perspective that simplifies reality. In my opinion, there are a few books that do the genre well, and some of the best westerns are actually anti-westerns that destroy the simplified romantic mythology by revealing the complex human nature beyond the celebrated stories of the wild west. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian does this particularly well, however many reader will admit that McCarthy takes the anti-western to the nth degree by murdering the genre in a blood-bath of gruesome proportions. Conversely, Oakley Hall’s Warlock is an impressive anti-western that expands the possibilities of the genre through the development of an existential perspective towards the western mythology. Yes, Warlock is populated with plenty of murder and deceit, but unlike McCarthy’s writing that brings the violence into focus, Hall’s Warlock focuses on the complexity of human emotion and philosophy.
The novel’s title namesake, Warlock, is a small, but growing town just out of reach of the neighboring county seat and therefore lacks a court or sheriff. Warlock is faced with a bureaucratic conundrum as its population swells due to the neighboring silver mines and it must make due with a sequence of ineffective deputies that lack the authority to maintain order as rowdy cowboys have bullied the townsfolk with vandalism and murder. What makes this conundrum worse is that any criminal sent to trial in the neighboring Bright’s City get set free on acquittal as the juries of Bright’s City’s courts are often stacked by or threatened by the leader of the cowboy hooligans. Therefore, the deputies are often murdered or run off by the “innocent” men they had arrested. The bureaucratic complexities run even deeper since Bright’s city is run by an uninterested and fattened sheriff remaining subservient to a dementia-crazed governor/general more interested in reliving his military past chasing off Apaches than he is in developing the mining town of Warlock.
Mixed in all of this is the development of a miner’s union that additionally complicates the politics of the township, further limiting its influence with the county seat. So, with few options available to protect them, the civil minded people of Warlock develop a questionably legal Citizen’s Committee that pools together the money to hire a fast-shooting Marshal to protect the townspeople from the rowdy hooligans. What makes this scenario all the more interesting, is that the people of the Citizen’s Committee are troubled by their choices and often find themselves in deep philosophical discussion about the legality and moral rational behind their decision to hire a gunslinging marshal, as depicted in the letters that one of the Citizen Committee members writes:
“We do not break so simply as some think into the two camps of townsmen and Cowboys. We break into the camps of those wildly inclined, and those soberly, those irresponsible and those responsible, those peace-loving and those outlaw and riotous by nature; further into the camps of respect, and of fear – I mean for oneself, and for all decent things besides.” (172)
With moral questions such as this, the plot sounds pretty thick doesn’t it? Well, it gets thicker as the new deputy, John Gannon, a former friend of the cowboy leader McQuown, is not trusted by either the town or the gang of cowboys, especially since his hot-headed brother, Billy Gannon is running with McQuown’s cowboy gang. His brother eventually is “posted” out of town, or in other words, marked for death by the gun-slinging marshal if seen within the borders of Warlock. This causes all sorts of moral dilemmas for the deputy who must uphold the law and save face with his family, friends and love-interest; however, when faced with this dilemma Gannon is troubled to the point of ineffective lassitude. He spends most of his time observing rather than enforcing the law, and is of the mind capable of pondering the following:
“It seemed to him that hate was a disease, and that he did not know a man who didn’t have it, turned inward or outward.” (66)
If Gannon, the deputy, were to seek out a moral compass in his town, it would be difficult to find. Despite the lack of a courthouse, Warlock is judiciously served by an accusatory alcoholic judge that does little but criticize the marshal and the Citizens Committee with a harsh voice frequently drowned by free flow of whiskey. There is also a gambling card-shark who happens to be a close friend with the marshal and somehow behind the scenes of many of the town’s troubles. Although the town is sparsely populated by women, the few women characters are complex with well developed and complex motivations. Throughout the book the narrative voices weaves back and forth from each character’s perspective, expressing different character’s personal view of their neighbor’s actions and beliefs. This form of storytelling, creates a forward progressing narrative that reads easily with an engaging drive. It is as though everyone that populates Warlock is a central character, each with their own weaknesses and strengths that are both tragic and comic, fully human and believable. This is not the stuff of romantic writing, as demonstrated by this passage from the doctor’s monologue about his involvement as a union organizer:
“He gazed at his world through inward eyes and saw all his ideals and aspirations crumbling gray and ineffectual…He had deluded himself with his ideals of humanity and liberality, but peace came after war, not out of reason…So it had always been, and revolutions were made by men who conquered or who died, and not by gray thoughts in gray minds. Peace came with a sword, right with a sword, justice and freedom with swords, and the struggle to them must be led by men with swords rather than by ineffectual men counseling reason and moderation.” (435)
As I have expanded upon above, Warlock is a wonderful character driven novel, but I must acknowledge that it is also beautifully written with poetic passages of scenery that have an intoxicating allure. For instance, reference this passage about the gambler sitting in the local pub watching the sun through the slats of the swinging doorway:
“He watched the thin slats of sun that fell through the louvre doors, destroyed each time a man entered or departed, in a confusion of shifting, jumbled light and shadow as the doors swung and reswung in decreasing arcs. Then they would stand stationary again, and the barred pattern of light would reform.” (378)
This book pleased me greater than any book I had read in quite some time. It had long been on my to-read list because it was noted as a favorite and influential work of Thomas Pynchon’s. Oddly, the style and subject matter is unlike anything that Pynchon wrote, with the use of multiple character perspectives being the only similarity to Pynchon’s style. Pynchon’s admiration for this book is understandable because Warlock succeeds as an engaging work of art through its use of multiple views from several distinct characters to develop a universal story that isn’t simply about the American wild west. Warlock is a human story, the moral and bureaucratic scenarios that drive its plot are not merely the problems of some forgotten western town, they are the problems faced by societies across this globe, societies populated by peoples attempting to make right amidst the wrongs suffered at the hands of their peers and neighbors. This is a powerful story that raises its ante in each chapter invested by the reader and the payoff is immensely enjoyable and memorable.