When I think Western I think Cormac McCarthy’s blood-drenched Blood Meridian, a novel of such unrelentingly nihilistic violence that barely a page passes without a shooting or a stabbing or a scalping or a good old-fashioned garrotting. But mostly scalping.
(I’m pressed to remember whether I’ve ever even read another book in the genre. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series borrows plenty of Western tropes but blends them with so much fantasy I don’t think they qualify.)
Paulette Jiles takes a very different approach with her beautiful little novel, News of the World. It’s violent at times but ultimately a melancholic tale of ageing, identity and finding love in unlikely places.
It’s Texas in 1870 and Captain Jefferson Kidd is a travelling newsreader – he literally crisscrosses the land with a stack of big city newspapers to read to townsfolk who have no other way apart, from word of mouth, of learning about the changes sweeping the United States in Reconstruction years following the civil war.
Along the way the 71-year-old is given a job to do: return 10-year-old Johanna to her family after four years as a captive of the Kiowa Indians.
It’s no easy task because Johanna has gone native: she believes she’s Kiowa. She’s wild, a creature who will not easily integrate back into European society. Nonetheless a bond develops between these unlikely companions – a bond that is very soon put to the test.
It’s reminiscent in tone and feel to True Grit. The Coen brothers film at least – I haven’t read the nook on which it’s based. Jiles is a great writer, who brings a light tough to her historical realism – the exact opposite of Michael Chabon’s approach in Moonglow. A very good little novel.
Next: a Booker winner to round out the year.