Let me tell you a story," says Tony Hillerman, which is what a lot of Westerners say these days instead of hello-how-are-you. The Albuquerque, N.M., detective novelist is explaining how the West, that fabled land of coyotes and laconic cowpokes, has in the past couple of decades become nothing less than a hotbed of writers and readers, a virtual literary paradise. "This was 15 years ago," Hillerman says. " I was in a bar in northern Wyoming, and I'm listening to three cowboys. And it dawns on me that they're talking about a book. Two of them have read it, and they're recommending it to the third. The book sounds fascinating. I got back home and I looked it up. It was the first place I'd heard about 'A River Runs Through It'."
Hillerman's tale about Norman Maclean's classic collection of stories might sound too good to be true if there were not so many other Westerners with similar tales. Historian Patricia Limerick tells of giving a speech in Casper, Wyo. "The week after, the man who'd invited me told me that his barber, his garage mechanic and his dental technician had all talked to him about my speech."
Without a doubt, the West is in the midst of a don't-fence-us-in literary explosion comparable to the Southern literary renaissance in the '30s. "In the West right now we have 10 times as many good writers as we had 15 years ago," says Montana author William Kittredge. "There's a new one every time you look sideways. "Joining established talents like Tom McGuane, Joan Didion and Ken Kesey are a host of exotic, eccentric fiction writers, including Ron Carlson, Katherine Dunn and Kate Braverman. The desert is blooming naturalist writers like Gary Paul Nabhan and Terry Tempest Williams. The likes of James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Amy Tan, Ishmael Reed and Charles Johnson turn out their splendidly multicultural takes on the American scene. And this spring Wallace Stegner, the octogenarian dean of Western letters, published his 28th book, "Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs."
Of course, the West wouldn't be the West without its ornery streak. It's not enough that Westerners spend more on books per capita than anyone else in the country. Nor that most of the nation's biggest independent bookstores are west of the Mississippi. No, Western readers read the same books people back East read, and then they go on reading off a shelf all their own. Certain writers, like Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya, whose novel "Bless Me, Ultima" has sold 300,000 copies, are celebrated in the West and barely known back East.
Likewise, Western publishing has its own peculiar profile. Though blessed with dozens of highly regarded small presses, the West lacks a single company to rival the giant publishing conglomerates in New York. But Westerners have led the way in self-help and spiritual publishing. Berkeley's Ten Speed Press, for example, has sold 4.3 million copies of its career choice classic, "What Color Is Your Parachute?"
Westerners disagree about exactly how they reached this happy state. But almost everyone agrees that Eastern indifference had a lot to do with it. Their paranoia is not entirely misplaced. When Norman Maclean was trying to publish "A River Runs Through It," not a single New York publisher would take it, and one editor sent a rejection letter that complained, " These stories have trees in them."
Only in recent decades has the situation improved and even then, Stegner thinks, "very slowly and reluctantly and against all the economies of space and time." And with the diligent and steadfast help of Stegner himself, as almost any Western writer will attest. (Most of them matriculated in the Stanford creative-writing program that he created. Among those who passed through were Kittredge and McGuane, as well as Larry McMurtry, Raymond Carver, Tillie Olsen and Ken Kesey.)
"I've been waiting all my life for a publishing world to develop in the West," Stegner says, because whatever else you say about East or West, they are different subcultures of the same culture. This difference is spiritual and literary and in other ways difficult to define. You can recognize it, but you'd have a hard time defining it."
But defining it is precisely what occupies a lot of Western writers-and a lot of their readers-these days. "In the last decade, people in the West just kind of woke up to the idea that they can have some say in their own fate " says Kittredge, a 59-year-old writer who, after publishing two acclaimed story collections and a book of essays with small publishers, finally published his first book with a New York firm last month. "Westerners don't have to be just cowboys or lumberjacks or miners. Those are roles where somebody is working for somebody else. A whole new thing is happening for us out here, and we don't quite know who we want to be. We're trying to figure it out."
That explains the high percentage of intensely personal memoirs that have come out of the West lately. Most recently there was Kittredge's "Hole in the Sky," a searing description of his own self-destructive life interwoven with the story of how his family's agribusiness empire laid waste an edenic swatch of Oregon countryside. In " Rain or Shine," Cyra McFadden eulogized her rambunctiously dysfunctional family and the macho rodeo circuit where her father was a star announcer. In "Refuge," Utah native Terry Tempest Williams mixed descriptions of the wildlife of the Great Salt Lake with an account of the nuclear-testing fallout that claimed seven women in her family.
Devoid of sentimentality, ruthlessly unromantic, each of these books is another nail in the coffin of what "The Big Sky" author A. B. Guthrie once dubbed the "gun and gallop school" of shoot-'em-up Westerns. They are not atypical. The new writers of the purple sage are no longer just white males, and the concerns of Chicanas like Sandra Cisneros or Native Americans like Linda Hogan or African-Americans like Clarence Major rarely overlap the fanciful territory carved out by Zane Grey. When a writer does produce historical fiction, as Native American James Welch did in " Fools Crow," his magnificent and tragic novel about the 19th-century Blackfoot wars, the historical research is usually impeccable.
Lyricism, especially when applied to the landscape, has become a suspect commodity among Western fiction writers like Tom McGuane and Richard Ford. But that doesn't mean that nobody writes about the landscape anymore. It's just that in recent years this topic has become the province of environmentally conscious nonfiction writers, ranging from the sorehead naturalism of the late Edward Abbey in works like "Desert Solitaire" to the journalism of Marc Reisner, whose "Cadillac Desert" exhaustively records the devious scrambles for water in the West.
In his books "Dust Bowl" and "Rivers of Empire," environmental historian Donald Worster has explored the ways in which humans and the natural world have acted upon each other. As far as Worster is concerned, Western history is inconceivable unless the landscape gets equal billing, maybe even top billing. "When you're on the plains or in the mountains," Worster says, " what hits you right between the eyes is rock, everywhere, tens of millions of years old. It does something to your sense of civilization as a permanent institution. People in the West are always carrying out their lives, even if they're in cities, against an enormous geological force-rock and water and the great sky. All that has an impact that you don't get in other parts of the country."
One of the results of this vastness is, in Worster's words, "a very decentralized literary culture." But a culture nonetheless. These days, even the cowboys get together once a year in Elko, Nev., and recite their poetry to one another. Hispanic writers in Tucson, Ariz., have no trouble thinking of themselves as part of a clan of writers that includes Asian-Americans in Portland, Ore., and Native Americans in Missoula, Mont. And while Easterners are often puzzled by such long-distance camaraderie, it makes perfect sense to Westerners who think nothing of driving three hours each way to have dinner with friends. Explaining the "wonderful sense of congeniality" among Western writers, Terry Tempest Williams says simply, It's the distances that bind us."
You're a tenderfoot if you haven't read . . .
DESERT SOLITAIRE by Edward Abbey THE BIG SKY by A. B. Guthrie McTEAGUE by Frank Norris ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman Maclean THE INDIAN LAWYER by James Welch THE OX-BOW INCIDENT by Walter Van Tilburg Clark HOUSE MADE OF DAWN by N. Scott Momaday THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR by John Nichols At least something by Tony Hillerman
More than 100
Sandra Dijkstra, whose clients include Susan Faludi, Amy Tan and Jess Mowry
WHAT COLOR IS YOUR PARACHUTE? (Ten Speed Press, 4.3 million copies sold) 50 SIMPLE THINGS YOU CAN DO TO SAVE THE EARTH (Earth Works Press, 3.5 million copies sold) THE MOOSEWOOD COOKBOOK (Ten Speed Press, 1.5 million copies sold)
Books walking off the shelves out West (but good luck finding 'em back East):
A GARLIC TESTAMENT by Stanley Crawford THE MEADOW by James Galvin THE NINEMILE WOLVES by Rick Bass THE RIVER WHY by David James Duncan
Freddy's Feed and Read (Missoula)
Albuquerque Portland All of Montana