(Mariner Books, 2017)
Discussing The Searchers in one of his early film essays, Godard describes when John Wayne finds Natalie Wood and holds her at arm’s length as a moment of classical transference. “We pass from stylized gesture to feeling,” he writes, “from John Wayne suddenly petrified to Ulysses being reunited with Telemachus.’’ Joseph Scapellato gives chase to a similar moment—despite being hindered by a different caliber of cowboys. His are desperados more likely to eat the horse than ride it. Or else they are the breed of tenderfoot that Wayne would be wiping from his boot in the first five minutes.
Big Lonesome is Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection. Published by Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February, the twenty-five stories that lie between its covers are among the most diverse, inventive, and fearless genre writing in recent memory. Divided into “Old West,” “New West” and “Post-West,” the three-part format carries itself with knowing simulation. Unlike the way HBO’s Westworld teases the luxury of being outside the construct, Scapellato places our nation’s guiding trope at the center of every character, even if they are wearing a baseball cap where a Stetson should be.
The stories in the first section update the Western tall tale as post-modern trickster narrative. The spirit of Sut Lovingood, George Washington Harris’s Old Southwestern version on Huck Finn, which inspired Twain and Faulkner, returns to disrupt rather than instruct. Whereas Sut concocted revenge pranks to satirize preachers, politicians, and other targets of regional scorn, Scapellato’s unnamed cowboys raise their pistols to all before locking eyes on themselves.
Horseman Cowboy, the half-equine protagonist of the story of the same name, picks up right where Sut left off, rebelling against such types as Educated Circus Man, Refined Reformer Woman, and Willful Farm Girl—but with an absurdity of gesture that invalidates any moral message. Like a mature-rated BoJack Horseman, he seems more interested in simulating the world’s rupture than becoming its agent. After being judged “incomplete before the Lord” by Refined Reformer Woman, Horseman Cowboy “fucks a woman, a woman, a woman—he kick-smashes haystacks and wells and barns—he bellows black longing to a sky swollen with a half-moon's glowing ache—”.
Rage collapses into a similar lunar want at the end of “Five Episodes of White-Hat Black-Hat.” White-Hat Cowboy awakes the morning after the town is burned and all the women either killed or raped. His first impulse is to feel nothing except his sore limbs. But with a dead baby lying next to him, he is drawn to the edge of admitting that there is no binary. That the death of the baby is his death, too, and that Black-Hat Cowboy was him in full flourish of the daemon. Scapellato’s gift is to convey the collapse of his characters with the sparest language and thrift of detail, “The wind took off the white-cowboy's hat. It journeyed down the mountain while he watched.”
In “New West” and “Post-West,” the pattern is reversed. The daemon that had once walked with spurs down the middle of town in the collection’s first third is cast to the shadows. In its place there is the ruined self that either struggles to protect itself or is so deracinated it is unaware that the trope could ambush around the next corner. In “A Mother Buries a Gun in the Desert Again,” we are given a drunk-driving mother grazing a sobriety checkpoint on what has become a regular ritual to save her son. The western trope remains concealed throughout the story, although we feel its revolver poke us in the back at the end. The mother and estranged father return home to discover that “it” isn’t there. Instead, they find a young man in pajamas who went right to bed after disposing of his latest victim.
Scapellato wins with such realistic turns because he doesn’t force the trope. He lets the archetypal nature of the situation be all the genre continuity that is required—whether we are given a mother as frontier mother concealing a murder weapon from the law, or a cross-country driver falling asleep at the wheel as a beleaguered pony express rider. In “Snake Canyon,” perhaps the strongest piece in the collection, the symbolic conjoins the realistic, with hyper-aware hikers who are punished for paying attention to the wrong signifiers.
Their comeuppance seems fated from the title yet Scapellato defies genre expectation. He gets us to care about these modern-day “dudes”—two unnamed graduate students who could be a pair of bros chatting at the local independent coffee shop. Scapellato doesn’t make it easy for himself, between their ironic beards and their post-structuralist posturing (“Let's Name This Mountain.”) In a masterstroke of compression, he allows character to be transformed by situation. When one of the hikers is bitten by a rattlesnake, the other is ennobled in a fashion that Scapellato had so far denied the reader.
The trajectory of redemption suggests Flannery O’Connor at her best. It also sets a new tone for the collection’s final section, where Scapellato delivers his version of the classical transference Godard distilled from The Searchers. The ex-soldiers, struggling millennials, and other residents of Scapellato’s “Post-West” have run as far as they can. Most of them are shot down before getting their gun out of the holster. But a few are able to grasp what John Wayne and Natalie Wood held for a moment. In a story like “Father's Day,” which concludes the collection, the joining is between a dying grandfather and grandson. The dying hand that had been left dangling in story after story in Big Lonesome is finally held.