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How the West Was Fun 

Much like baseball, the Western, whether as a movie genre or a literary one, is constantly mourned as a fading relic, with little hope of long-term survival.

And yet, just as disgruntled fans become enamored with the erstwhile national pastime each October, so, too, does the Western manage to rekindle its admirers' hearts even as it is diminished. The cowboy shoot-em-up is reinvented every so often in Hollywood, more as homage than trailblazing movement. Recent additions include Kevin Costner's Open Range and The Missing by Ron Howard. Such films never turn into blockbusters; instead, they attract a small, dedicated audience hungry for archetypes that once filled movie screens on a weekly basis 50 years ago.

The Western, like its white-hatted heroes, never dies. Recently, HBO launched its profanity-laced exploration of Western myths with Deadwood, created by David Milch, the writer behind NYPD Blue.

For those seeking horse operas bearing literary dash, Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), during the course of a lengthy career, has offered a steady stream of novels that both shatter and affirm the lore of America's frontier days.

It is safe to say, though, that while the gimp-kneed Western gets a shot of steroids every few years, its future remains. Now, as McMurtry prepares to wrap a Western tetralogy chronicling the exploits of an aristocratic British family traveling the harsh climes of the region, a new voice has arrived.

It belongs to Guy Vanderhaeghe, a Canadian writer whose most recent novel, The Last Crossing (Atlantic Monthly Press), has just been published in America, two years after it became a best seller in Canada.

Much as McMurtry's recent novels have done, The Last Crossing plays with the notion of strangers in a strange land. Echoing McMurtry's raucous Berrybenders, The Last Crossing also employs a wealthy, unhappy British family as its foundation. It, too, begins with a contentious clan thrown together along the Missouri River.

In Vanderhaeghe's novel, the aptly named Gaunt family is transported from Victorian England to Montana and beyond into Canada's Northwest Territories.

Simon Gaunt, the family idealist, disappears in a winter blizzard in Montana, prompting his father, an ornery British industrial baron, to send Simon's brothers in search of him. The incident occurs while Simon is with the Rev. Witherspoon as part of a mission to convert Indians in the New World.

Simon's twin brother, Charles, is a disillusioned artist and a man who often stifles his emotions. The eldest sibling, Addington, is a failed military captain with a violent, selfish heart and a nasty case of syphilis. They arrive in Montana in the 1870s. The Gaunts' speech, fashion and wealth make them obvious outsiders.

Vanderhaeghe draws his ensemble cast with muscular prose, which often snaps along in pitch-perfect rhythm. He's not bad with an analogy, either.

"A boom town," Vanderhaeghe writes, "draws rogues like a jam jar draws wasps."

The novelist keeps the story front and center, ladling out artful sentences and phrases. He's also done his homework on period details, from topography to ballistics to numerous historical oddities.

Flashbacks, as well as alternating narrators, keep the story moving back and forth. It begins in earnest when Charles and Addington arrive in Montana and assemble a search party.

It includes Caleb Ayto, a shiftless journalist hired to record the trek -- and glorify Addington's exploits. Jerry Potts, a half-Blackfoot, half-Scot, signs on as the party's guide, leading them north, where Simon Gaunt was traveling when he disappeared.

They are joined by Lucy Stoveall, who is on a mission seeking revenge on the men who killed her sister. Lucy's presence attracts Custis Straw, a crusty Civil War veteran-turned-horse trader. He drowns himself in whiskey and laudanum when he's not mooning over Lucy.

Finally, the saloonkeeper, Custis' close friend, Aloysius Dooley, follows Custis into the wilderness to join the Gaunts' traveling party.

Everyone on the caravan is in search of something or someone. Lucy, a spirited beauty (natch), upsets the men's equilibrium. Charles, like Custis, falls hopelessly in love with her, giving Addington sadistic pleasure in taunting both over their soft hearts. Dooley dubs the caravan little more than "a game of fox and hounds."

Here is how Vanderhaeghe describes the departure of his motley crew:

"Axles shrieking, the chirp and squeal of wagon boards sawing against one another, the tintinnabulation of enamelware clanking in the back, drivers shouting, ŒHyup! Hyup!' slapping reins to teams surging in their collars up the arid, canvas-coloured hill, the blue sky lurching above them, flapping like a matador's cape, teasing them to charge forward."

Once the party sets out, the narrative axles bog down in historical diversion. If most of these wanderings are superfluous to plot advancement, they are nonetheless entertaining.

The dialogue shimmers, as well.

In a fit of recollection, Custis conjures marksmanship advice offered by a musketry instructor: "Mister, squeeze that trigger like your lady's nipple. Just hard enough to get results, but not hard enough to make her jump."

Well-rendered, if familiar, episodes follow: the struggle to survive the elements, encounters with grizzly bears, a devastated Indian village plagued by smallpox. Each member of the traveling party must confront personal demons and fears along the way.

It's a horrid cliche, but, this being a Western, we're going to allow it. The Last Crossing is best enjoyed for the scenery and the ambling ride; there is nothing faulty in its resolution, but the pacing and wagonloads of vivid description make it a keeper. If there is any justice in the literary frontier, Vanderhaeghe's novel represents the first of many Western crossings. His lively prose, you might say, is perfect fodder for dead wood.

click to enlarge Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing treads the familiar Western path of strangers in a strange land.
  • Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing treads the familiar Western path of strangers in a strange land.
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