A WEST OF ONE’S OWN

By all accounts, “The Willow Field,” has a number of interesting credentials and collaterals at play outside its actual text.

“The Willow Field” is the first novel from a 74-year-old, William Kittredge, an elegant and prolific writer of short stories, essays and scholarly examinations. It is the first protracted work of fiction on which he embarked after having gone emeritus at the University of Montana, where he taught creative writing and literary theory. It was published by Knopf, a company once known by the full name – Alfred A. Knopf – of its founder before being subsumed by Random House. Before the Random House takeover, Knopf was the hands-down winner of the number of Nobel Prize laureates it published.

I’d met Kittredge and his companion, Annick Smith, one pleasant autumn afternoon on the slough-side deck of Barnaby and Mary Conrad, where I was able to give him a progress report on a few of his undergraduate students who had come my way. Last, but by no means least, I’d been bemoaning the disappearance of the Western, any novel with the theme of the American West writ large. The most notable and recent one for me being Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” and my most favored, Jack Schaefer’s 1963 classic, “Monte Walsh.”

In between “Monte Walsh” and “Lonesome Dove” were scores of tales from largely unknown-outside-the-genre writers such as Ernest Haycox, Harry Sinclair Drago, Frank Gruber, and the still-productive master, Elmer Kelton. Even though there are millions of copies of Louis L’Amour novels still readily available, the Western was laid to rest as at best a sentimental oddity, something that had run its course. In many ways, the novel of the American West was subsumed by the novel of the American gangster.

Never mind the Elmore Leonard Westerns, never mind the continued popularity of the genre among European readers, film directors, and authors. What convention hath decreed obsolete let no one question. Indeed, when Larry McMurtry turned in the manuscript for “Lonesome Dove,” one can almost imagine the horror of its publisher. Not only was the novel a bona fide Western, it was a big, thick Western, nearly twice as thick at McMurtry’s 1969 venture “Horsemen, Pass By,” which, although a Western, at least had the good graces to be set post World War II. So supportive of “Lonesome Dove” was its publisher that the first printing was a scant 3,500 copies.

The Western got its first breath of life with Owen Wister’s 1902-but-still viable “The Virginian,” and was fanned into greater force with works – notably “Riders of the Purple Sage” by a dentist with a flair for the dramatic, Zane Grey. Walter Van Tilburg Clark saw the iconic possibilities with his 1940 venture, “The Ox-Bow Incident,” which dealt with the consequences of one of the major themes of Western novel, taking justice away from due process and into one’s own hands. Yet another splendid examination of a major Western theme is found in A.B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel, “The Big Sky,” in which a group of entrepreneurs and adventurers journeyed from St. Louis toward the Northwest, looking for what eventually became Montana. Wallace Stegner’s 1972 epic –because it was large in scope and bulk – “Angle of Repose” trails after yet another narrative theme, the fortunes of a family dynasty. And we must not discount Cormack McCarthy’s Border trilogy, three novels that break state, country and personal boundaries.

What then to make of “The Willow Field?”

Like “Lonesome Dove,” which begins with a whimsical cattle drive (the drive is undertaken as a respite from boredom, and all the cows have been stolen from ranchers below the Texas border), “The Willow Field” begins with a moment of truth for 15-year-old Ross Benasco. Having had quite a long sexual fling with Mattie, the daughter of his boss, Ross is given the option of marrying her or taking a summer away from her by signing up as a buckaroo on a horse drive that will move over a thousand horses from Nevada through the Rockies to Calgary, where they will be delivered to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Benasco, inexplicably called Rossie through much of the test, after much argument with his libido, decides to take the summer away from Mattie. In “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville waxed long – perhaps too long – and rhapsodic about whales. In “The Willow Field,” Kittredge throws off the disciplines and restraints of a long, distinguished academic life, providing not only a symphonic overview of the horse in motion but as well a sense of what it was to be in the Western states during the early years of the 20th century, where muddy trails, one- and two-lane paved roads, Fords and Packards converged with barbed-wire fences, horsemen, cattlemen, farmers and the remarkable assemblage of cloud and horizon known as Montana.

As you might have suspected, Ross Benasco mourns the loss in his life of Mattie and in the process is led to serious speculation of what to make of himself in life beyond being a talented buckaroo. All of this leads to the dramatic inevitable – his meeting Eliza Stevenson, by all accounts his destiny and fate.

One of the many elements standing forth in Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” is the nugget of information found in an interview with him shortly after publication. Stegner allowed that if there were any of his writings he was fated to have written, this novel was the one. In similar fashion, following Kittredge’s narrative line, we can see a similar editorial overseer, a hand of the passionately inevitable. Like Jack Schaefer in “Monte Walsh” and certainly like Guthrie and Stegner, Kittredge evokes not only the movement of horses and the hasty, half-cooked taste of trail cooking; he imparts information about equipment, appearances, behavior, and the shadowy wonders of a time and place that were doomed to change.

Ross Benasco’s West was interrupted by World War II, by Senator Joe McCarthy, by the “Red Menace” and as well by FHA loans, homes that originally sold for less than many of today’s new cars, and an ongoing sense that the most recent good time, whatever it was, might just possibly be the last good time.

“The Willow Field” is like a heart carved on a tree, with “WK” for William Kittredge, and loves “M” for loves Montana. Unlike many of the stylistic worthies I’ve mentioned in connection with the Western, Kittredge brings his characters forth in a seeming rush of impatience. Many of the scenes follow conventional form, but just as often, conversations flare up like a wooden match in the Western night, just long enough to ignite a hand-rolled cigarette. Meals somehow appear for the hungry, agenda-driven characters shamble past, eager to be up early for a prime choice of the horse to be ridden for the rest of the long day in the saddle. “The Willow Field” is a time capsule of what was and no longer is, dug up now for our pleasure.