Catatonic Cowboy Country

“If I were without responsibilities and ambition I would sit and read that book over and over until my body atrophied and my mind warped and I became a ward of the state. I turned the last page and said to myself, “Welp, guess I’m never gonna write a Western.”

This is how John Brandon, author of the fantastic novels Arkansas and Citrus County, described Percival Everett’s unconventional Western novel, God’s Country.

I figured any book that could stop one of my favorite writers in his tracks had to be worth checking out. So I ventured into God’s Country myself to see if I’d be zapped in a similar fashion.

I guess I enjoy a good Western as much as the next Oregon white boy raised on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but, I must confess, I haven’t read too many of them. I’d recently picked up True Grit by Charles Portis, and was blown away by its wit and adventure, the perfect language Portis used to capture that special mixture of stodgy Christian propriety and filthy, two-faced, drunken cowboy savagery. There’s an excellent discussion of True Grit, both the novel and the new Coen brothers’ movie, between Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana at the New York Review of Books Blog.

Portis’s humor and hard-boiled precision were fresh in my mind as I began reading Everett’s novel. Both books encourage two dollar matinee behavior; it’s hard not to cackle out loud, bite your nails, or lean forward in anticipation… quite literally on the edge of your seat. But the differences emerged quickly, and, once they did, it was clear that God’s Country was a different kind of Western.

It was Everet’s humor, much more persistent and over the top than Portis’s, that zapped me first. The main character, Curt Marder, is an ass of great magnitude; his selfish stupidity truly boggles the mind. Though not completely without poetry (“On legs limper than a milked cow’s teats…”is how he he starts one chapter), when the local saloon keeper stands over him and says, “Curt Marder, you no-good, free-loadin’, back-slidin’, dog-lipped son-of-a-mud-rat, you owe me three dollars!” well, that about sums him up.

As Marder enlists/coerces a black tracker named Bubba to help him find the wife he doesn’t really care about, it becomes infuriatingly clear that Marder is a greedy, cowardly, unscrupulous bigot who will cause nothing but pain for those unlucky enough to be anywhere near him. It’s here that Everett’s genius starts to shine. The satire begins to tread on more serious ground and the laughter becomes increasingly uneasy. Slapstick antics brush up against slavery and genocide. Everett’s approach highlights the way period pieces such as Westerns can sidestep race and make light of grave issues. Everett twists and manipulates every rote narrative formula until you have no idea where you’ll end up. Is Marder going to finally face reality and act like a decent human being? Is Bubba going to give him what he deserves? Or will he somehow weasel his way to the top? Will there be no justice?

One of the funniest books I’ve ever read might also be the most dead serious Western ever written. It is the very best kind of disorienting. By the end, I too was sitting there, slack-jawed, maybe drooling a little, ready to turn back to page one and start all over again. -Casey O.

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