About halfway through Charles Portis’s 1968 classic “True Grit,” the grizzled gunslinger Rooster Cogburn puts on a menacing show: He pulls his pistol, throws an empty whiskey bottle into the air, fires at it — and misses. The scene was a stake through the heart of the western as a straightforward exercise in heroic iconography. Henceforward, the genre could function only behind a scrim of irony or revisionism.
The most conventional of these four new westernsis Jeff Guinn’s Glorious (Putnam, $26.95), an affable, if pedestrian, bit of frontier mythmaking. St. Louis-born Cash McLendon follows his first true love, Gabrielle Tirrito, west to Glorious, a dead-end Arizona mining town with high hopes for a silver boom. Although Gabrielle proves resistant to Cash’s courting, he decides to stick around, gradually befriending a motley collection of eccentric locals. Guinn makes readers care about these misfits, even managing a clumsy if earnest subtext about how “the West was going to be a place where anything was possible, where there were better lives for ordinary people” — “ordinary people” excluding “Native Americans,” naturally. Although the story sags a bit, readers may find by the end that, like Cash McLendon, they’vebecome inexplicably fond of Glorious and its colorful denizens.
The tale of honest frontiersmen threatened by bad guys is one reliable standby of the genre; another is the enthusiastic retelling of famous lives. In Sundance (Riverhead, $27.95), David Fuller spins a what-if rumination on what might have happened if Harry Longabaugh, “the Sundance Kid” — better known as Robert Redford — had not died in Bolivia in 1908 but instead had ended up in “the fevered nightmare madhouse” of New York City circa 1913. Upon this inventive premise, Fuller hangs a fanciful yarn that transforms the steely Longabaugh into a big-city sleuth, chasing down leads in pursuit of his missing wife. While unfurling reams of painstaking detail, Fuller complies with theThird Law of Improbable Historical Fiction, which states that any prominent person or event that existed at the time of a historical novel’s setting must somehow be woven into the story, no matter how ungainly or illogical the result. In this case, the climax is engineered to take place at the famous Armory Show of 1913, where, in between stalking two murderers, Longabaughfinds time for precocious appreciation of the paintings of Picasso and Duchamp.
Larry McMurtry, meanwhile, takes on a subject even more heavily burdened by myth and history. The Last Kind Words Saloon (Liveright, $24.95) traces the fabled friendship of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday right up to the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral. McMurtry has been writing this kind of thing for so long that he is capable of sketching his scenes with a minimum of fuss, in a ghostly minimalist shorthand. (A less charitable reader might conclude that McMurtry is coasting a little.) His approach is drolly revisionary: For example, despite Earp’s ferocious reputation, he generally goes unarmed — he’s not even very good shot — and he and Holliday spend much of their time “trying to come up with ways to get rich without really working.” The iconic gunfight, likewise, is less a chivalrous showdown than a comic botch of misunderstandings, coincidences and ill-considered bluffs, and it might be the most underplayed climactic scene in the canon. Those who enjoy McMurtry’s rueful humor and understated tone of elegiac melancholy will devour the book in one setting; others will find it too slight and offhand to be genuinely commanding.
Which brings us to Any Other Name (Viking, $26.95), the 11th installment in Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, the basis of the A&E television show. Johnson’s wrinkle on the genre is simply to take an old-school lawman like Walt Longmire and drop him into a modern West scarred by poverty, crime and corruption. Longmire serves as a version of the Philip Marlowe noir detective — wise, tough, funny — in a cowboy hat and pickup truck. The novel is bracingly ruthless and unsentimental, and although the plot is a farrago of impenetrable nonsense about strippers and cops and runaways, it nonetheless builds to a genuinely tense (and TV-ready) climax. In Johnson’s Wyoming, the wide-open spaces remain, punctuated not by picturesque saloons and campfires but by trailer homes, fleabag motels, strip clubs, toll-highway plazas and polluted rail yards. The Golden West, indeed.
Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.