Every now and again, I get in the mood to watch old Westerns. I’m not talking about Tombstone or Unforgiven or even The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—I mean North by Northwest, McClintock, or Rio Bravo; thoseclassic John Wayne movies. They’re completely unrealistic, I know—a bunch of clean-shaven cowboys riding their ponies into the sunset and singing Gene Autry tunes around the campfire. But I like the stories and those movies are easy to tune out, which makes them perfect for just zoning out on the couch or just for background noise.
And I think that’s the same reason that I really liked The Way West, A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s 1950 Pulitzer-winner. Much like The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, which, along with this book, bookends the 1950’s, it’s just a fun, lackadaisical, jaunty trip into the mostly tame West. Sure, there are fights, run-ins with Native Americans, death, disease, adultery, etc., etc., but Guthrie isn’t precious about his writing and he’s not sentimental about the book; so, these trials and tribulations don’t really bog the reader down. At no point in this book did I wonder if they were going to make it to Oregon or not; I was never worried about it because Guthrie’s storytelling didn’t provoke or demand anxiety.
It’s hard to explain. It’s been a while since I finished the book, and while I remember the many truly awful things that happened on the characters’ way to Oregon, the overall image that has stayed with me is John Wayne leading a wagon train with Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin into wild blue yonder. Every night Ricky pulled out his guitar and he and Dean serenaded the pretty ladies to the tune of “I’ve got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle.”
Regardless, The Way West is a wonderful novel that really stood out as a diamond in the rough. I was dreading this book going into it, but I am happy to report that I was very pleasantly surprised by it. Guthrie is a terrific writer and, moreover, he’s authentic. As I mentioned earlier, he’s not precious or overly-sentimental; the emotions he conjures up in his readers aren’t contrived or manipulated—they’re real. Guthrie’s style is never flashy but it’s sophisticated enough to raise the novel above the level of the pulp work so often associated with the Western genre, particularly in 1950.