Apr/May 2008

How the West Was Fun

In his long-awaited novel, Rudy Wurlitzer conjures a fantastic frontier

Erik Davis


The Drop Edge of Yonder, Rudy Wurlitzer's first novel in over twenty years, may be the most hallucinogenic western you'll ever catch in the movie house of your mind's eye. Indeed, the novel is so saturated with cinema that its considerable pleasures may, I fear, demand from the reader a love or at least admiration for that mightiest and most hackneyed of film genres. For though Drop Edge continues the withering dissection of personal identity that Wurlitzer began with his prickly experimental novels of the late '60s and '70s, the book achieves its existential voids and visionary ironies through a satisfaction of western conventions that is simultaneously devotional, surreal, and absurdly indulgent. What results is a genre farce with oracular power—a Queen of Hearts sutra, a court jester's Blood Meridian.

The novel tracks the wayward drift of a mountain man named Zebulon Shook, who is cursed by his dying Shoshone lover—named Not Here Not There—to "drift like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if you're dead or alive, or if the unseen world exists, or if you're dreaming." With the collapse of the fur trade, Zebulon quits the mountains, crawls out of an arroyo after being shot in the heart and left for dead, and becomes an outlaw. In seedy Vera Cruz, he runs into a Russian count and his mysterious half-Abyssinian consort, Delilah, who pay him to sail with them to the gold fields of northern California. The story ends in the Pacific Northwest, at the Trail's End Saloon, but before we get there, we are treated to a Wunderkammer of western tropes and historical residues: wardens and wanted posters, rancheros and opium dens, freedom and fate, the Great Spirit and the Colt .45.

Wurlitzer trots through this magic theater like a restless auteur. Chapters are short, the dialogue tangy and declarative, and scenes established and characters described with the visual fetishism of a Leone film, as when Delilah first checks out Zebulon:

Her eyes focused on the Colt holstered around his waist, then shifted to the fifteen-inch Green River bowie knife tied to his right thigh, then to his Mexican trousers with silver buttons down the sides, his black sombrero, and finally, the bright blue serape that matched the color of his startled eyes.

We've seen this guy before, of course; we can almost hear the harmonica wail. But Wurlitzer is not interested in smirking his way through some hypermediated hall of mirrors. Instead, he wants his descriptions to trigger our own dream stores of celluloid flashbacks in order to pull our imaginations even deeper into his vision—a collective and therefore strangely substantial mirage. That's why his similes are oftentimes drawn from the same prop shop as the objects described. Rain on a tin roof clatters "like rifle fire," and rinky-dink piano music invades the dreams of prisoners "like a drunken surgeon scraping flesh from bone." When both poles of a figure evoke the same ghost town, we enter something like dream time.

In his earliest, aggressively self-interrogating fictions, Wurlitzer set the self adrift; the "protagonists" of Nog (1968) and Flats (1970) act without agency, arbitrarily picking up and discarding names and personalities like thrift-store duds. This obsession with the fictions that structure subjectivity led Wurlitzer, like so many of his contemporaries, to Buddhism, and his harrowing nonfiction book Hard Travel to Sacred Places (1994) remains one of the most profound and unsentimental spiritual memoirs of his generation. With an epigraph drawn from the Lankavatara Sutra, Drop Edge is equally concerned with dissolving selves, only it tucks them beneath outlandish masks poached from the Wild West: the mysterious whore, the ornery old cuss, the outlaw who fabricates his life story to a goofy New York reporter. These large figures, at once iconic and clichéd, move through Wurlitzer's western lands like hungry ghosts, consuming one another as they ricochet through a plot whose myriad of chance encounters only magnifies the spectral codependency of its players. "Dreaming was easy," Zebulon thinks at one point. "Being dreamed was the problem."

The novel's shimmering air of archetype and unreality is intensified by its dialogue. While their speech is peppered with funny, Deadwood-worthy locutions—"Do you particulate what that means?"— characters often ruminate past one another with the sort of profundities that haunt the pulps (and Cormac McCarthy, for that matter). Faced with a map drawn up by a Mexican shaman named Plaxico, Delilah sets a gun between her breasts and asks:

Is that all we need? A map? Is that why we're here? To ride on, and then ride on some more, and then some more again after someone who rides after us, or maybe ahead of us, because we don't know how to ride after ourselves?

Fans of Wurlitzer's writing will recognize many of his perennial obsessions here and throughout the book, the persistence of which may strike some readers as pretentious. But by reframing what the Zen tradition calls "the great matter of life and death" within a CinemaScope shoot-'em-up, Wurlitzer establishes a rare and delicious rhythm: a deeply psychedelic oscillation between comedy and portent. The western is revealed as a metaphysical landscape, but an absurd one, its absurdity falling somewhere between that of Beckett and Blazing Saddles. During a group guzzle of a noxious shaman's brew (eerily echoed in the recent Belgian movie western Blueberry/Renegade, with its ayahuasca songs and powerhouse trip visuals), Zebulon sees that he is "a part of it all," while his ma proclaims: "No doubt about it. The whole stew is only a passing, you and me and all the rest. The goddamn joke is on us, boys!" By the end, there is so much of this stuff that it is hard to tell how seriously Wurlitzer takes it, or wants us to take it. Indeed, we are told so often that Zebulon is stuck between the worlds that the reader will sometimes be tempted to chime in with Hatchet Jack and ask, "Ain't you carryin' this ride too far, little brother?"

Wurlitzer carries the ride the way he does because he has been astride the drop edge of yonder, in one form or another, for a mighty long spell. The lineaments of the metaphysical western already mark his debut novel, Nog, a countercultural jewel that employs an ever-imploding first-person perspective to relay the wanderings, linguistic and otherwise, of its evacuated hippie nonhero. (This great book, like Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar with teeth, is set to be reissued in 2009.) Halfway through the novel, the narrator steals a Stetson from a dying cowboy and helps shoot up a ghost town squatted by a feral, Mansonish cult, all the while clutching the handle of a bag of drugs like a pistol. This sort of badlands drift drifted into Wurlitzer's early screenplays as well, including Two-Lane Blacktop, the 1971 Monte Hellman masterpiece recently reissued by Criterion (which saw fit to include the screenplay along with the film and the usual features). Two-Lane Blacktop's laconic dialogue and restless emptiness, not to mention Warren Oates's stellar turn, spiritually tie the film to the freak westerns of the day—those scruffy, hedonistic, and sentimentally nihilistic films, like The Hired Hand and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, that romantically demythologized the moralistic oaters of an earlier generation. Wurlitzer then wrote one of the most impeccable of these westerns for Sam Peckinpah. With its portrayal of easy-loving outlaw communalists shacking up beyond the confines of the straight world, 1973's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid cemented the long-standing link between the counterculture and the mores, and hair styles, of the Wild West.

In the late '70s, Wurlitzer began a screenplay about a mountain man named Zebulon who gets shot in the heart and tracks his family to say good-bye; he dies in the Pacific Northwest and is put to sea in a burning canoe. The script had a more tortured career than most, and the project passed through a number of hands before winding up in those of Jim Jarmusch. Wurlitzer and Jarmusch were pals from the Lower East Side, and Wurlitzer respected his work; they talked for a few weeks before amicably parting ways. Wurlitzer didn't hear anything more about the project until he saw Jarmusch's 1995 Dead Man, a visionary western whose protagonist is shot in the heart before traveling to the Pacific Northwest and dying in a canoe. Wurlitzer considered suing, then decided that it would be toxic and pointless and opted instead to transform his tale into The Drop Edge of Yonder, whose cinematic tensions are partly the result of Wurlitzer working through his long and complicated life of writing for the screen. In the end, Wurlitzer said in an e-mail, he wound up "feeling rather perversely grateful for Jim's unconscious rape and pillage."

The metaphysical gambit of Dead Man, established as early as the opening train sequence, is that the hero is already dead. This is not a novel notion, even within the western, whose desolation is permeated with purgatory. When Clint Eastwood rides into the murderous San Miguel in A Fistful of Dollars, the most "dead" town he's ever seen, he passes a hanging tree as a church bell tolls and a sightless campesino rides by, his serape pinned with the message adios amigo. But with Drop Edge, Wurlitzer has considerably raised the stakes. Bringing his own unsentimental dharma to bear on the tale, Wurlitzer has fused the western lands with the bardo: the in-between realm that Tibetan Buddhists say awaits us after death, where the karmic projections of our own fears and desires build nightmarish hallucinations we take for reality. On one level, Wurlitzer is reminding us of the purgatorial function of film, and especially that of violent genres like the western, with its repetitive formulas, its fatalistic air of compulsion, its phantasmagoric familiarity. But Wurlitzer is also reflecting on the problem of the bardo itself, which is the problem of life. For if the self is empty and the world insubstantial, then the rich parade of human life can just as easily be seen as a crude and feverish B-movie projection—an endlessly unspooling dérive of sex and death that one character here calls "one damn dream after another." Over and above its loving and wicked send-up of frontier lore, Drop Edge invites us to reframe its fictions, like all fictions, perhaps, as our own Technicolor flashbacks from the dusty arroyo at the end of the line.

Erik Davis is the author, most recently, of The Visionary State: A Journey Through California's Spiritual Landscape (Chronicle, 2006).

Advertisement