- Blue Heaven by Willard Wyman
Is it possible to write a novel about the Old West that simultaneously oozes with white male nostalgia and also questions the mythical constructs of said West? Before Blue Heaven, I would have answered no. The vast divide between the popular West and the postmodern West seems too enormous to breach. Yet just as the characters in this novel cross and recross the Continental Divide of early twentieth-century Montana, so too does their author cross the Great Divide of today’s literary West. For those who thought the two Wests could never coexist, Blue Heaven provides a glimpse into a world where real and imagined live side by side, an Old West paradise tempered by the blues of modernity and postmodernity.
In Blue Heaven, Wyman takes us backward in time, placing the characters from his award-winning first novel, High Country (2008), earlier in the century. The first novel told the story of a young Ty Hardin, who learns the trade of packing amid the turmoil of the Great Depression, World War II, and the atomic bomb. The prequel focuses on Hardin’s [End Page 440] mentor, Fenton Pardee, who creates from nearly nothing a successful Prohibition-era packing business that guides rich eastern tourists into the backcountry of Montana. The novel contains all the classical elements of an Old West turn-of-the-century tale: cowboys and Indians, loggers and ranchers, prostitutes and schoolmarms, railroads and mule trains, mountains and canyons, wildernesses and towns, bar fights and romps in the hay. But from its very first pages, where Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is violently torn in half by a train wreck, Blue Heaven undermines the very myths in which it grounds itself. Emerging from that train wreck comes a young cowboy, Pardee, determined to go west (even as his own mentor, Cody, continues eastward with a broken stageshow) where he builds an alternate version of Cody’s myth, i.e., bringing easterners to the West rather than the West to easterners. During the story, the “real” West has its own feet yanked out from under it, as changes arrive on the frontier at a breathtaking pace in the form of electricity, automobiles, education, the Great Depression, and big band music.
Here, then, is an Old West cowboy who is ruthlessly aware of his own inauthenticity. Pardee—who is certainly the shadow twin of his creator, Wyman, an authentic packer in his own right, as well as a literature professor—constantly reminds us he learned to be a real cowboy while performing for an audience in Cody’s Wild West Show. In other words, this Baudrillardian western hero built his identity on the mythmaking of others, then turned the myth into reality—and he understands exactly what he has done. One can only hope Wyman will write a third novel that takes us even farther back so we can peel away even more layers of this paradox. His cast of self-aware characters brings a breath of fresh air to the western literary landscape.
However, readers who expect a plot with an actual storyline and a conclusion might be a tad disappointed by Blue Heaven. Previous reviews of Wyman’s work have noted he does not write novels so much as he writes lifestyles. His narrative moves much like the packing mules in his story, one event following another, plodding along a rocky path until eventually one finds oneself in a different place from where one began. Indeed, there is a certain veneer of western adventure here so that the missing plot is not apparent until quite late in the story. By then, we are caught up not by excitement and suspense but by slightly ordinary western lives and slightly ordinary western events. Nothing new to see here, we decide. Only afterward do we realize this novel has left us sitting on top of the Great Divide, gazing at a bridge that wasn’t there before. [End Page 441]