Sunday, October 23, 2011

Billings Gazette :: West of 98

Best of the West 2011
Edited by James Thomas
and D. Seth Horton
Buy It Now
Ambitious anthology tries to corral West's essence

By David Abrams For The Gazette

What is the West? Where does it begin and end? How does one even get there?

According to the “West of 98” editors and contributors, the answer to all three questions is: it depends. The West is less terra firma than it is terra incognita, a landscape of the imagination that is still being mapped by politicians and poets.

Lynn Stegner, who co-edited the anthology with Billings author Russell Rowland, writes in the introduction that the original goal was to find “a kind of Greek chorus that might define, remark upon, and otherwise characterize the West as each of us grew to know it, and, equally important, the West that is still becoming. A declaration not of our independence this time, but of our interdependence.”

What Stegner and Rowland got were 67 writers — most of them all-stars in contemporary west-of-the-Mississippi literature and each with a distinct and often contradictory perspective on what it means to live “west of the 98th meridian.” Taking a wide-angle view of “West of 98,” we find a crazy-quilt definition of the Western landscape and its people; some of the individual essays are exquisite, a few are flat as a Nebraska wheat field, but all form a pattern of what eventually looks like a singular landscape that generations have both tamed and succumbed to in the quest for more open spaces. The West is, as David Mas Masumoto claims, “dirt worth fighting for.”

In this thick, rich volume, we’re treated to essays and poems by, among others, Rick Bass, Larry McMurtry, Judy Blunt, Walter Kirn, Gary Snyder and Gretel Ehrlich. Some of the contributors merely define their own postage-stamp-sized corner of the West, others conclude by admitting they’re baffled by the physical and imaginative boundaries of the region. The true West is such an enigma to Ron Hansen, for instance, that his entire essay “Why the West?” is nothing but a series of questions (“Why do movie characters on the run almost always head west?” etc.).

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