The Western isn’t dead, not with Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry kicking up dust, not with the spirits of Tony Hillerman and Elmore Leonard wandering around among the cactus and mesas. But the genre, a branch of American popular writing since the 1870s, just doesn’t get much respect. Like country music, square dancing, and Cracker Barrel, it hasn’t been made ironic enough to be hip, hasn’t found enough young readers to make it seem something other than a province for old-timers. And Willie Nelson and Tommy Lee Jones can star in only so many movie adaptations…
Jeff Guinn, a connoisseur of all things related to the Old West and former book editor of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, doesn’t worry about where the Western genre stands on the hip-o-meter. Having written such sturdy true-crime fare as Go Down Together (2010), about legendary outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and The Last Gunfight (2012), a perceptive revisitation of the shootout at the OK Corral, Guinn turns to fiction with Glorious, the first in a trilogy starring a well-meaning if sometimes hapless hero named Cash McLendon.
As the tale opens, we find Cash—“I took his name from a family dog,” Guinn says amiably, “but it sounds good and Western to me”—in St. Louis, where he winds up in the clutches and family of a ruthless robber baron named Rupert Douglass. (The name Rupert, we might assume of a onetime newspaperman, isn’t inspired by a dog’s.) Fate intervenes to drive a distance between father-in-law and son-in-law, and Cash lights out for the territory—Arizona Territory, that is, where the woman he once loved is tending store out in the sticks, and where Cash’s fond thoughts turn.
That woman may not want to have much to do with Cash at first, but he finds other tasks to keep him busy on a lawless frontier smack in the middle of the Apache Wars. Cash hangs his hat in the gritty mining town of Glorious, a place that has its counterpart in the real-life Arizona town of Superior, though the similarity in the names is just a coincidence. “I knew the town had to be near water,” Guinn says, “since mines need water. And I knew there had to be something to mine. So I got in my car, pointed it into the mountains, and began to look around. I’d find a place that was almost right, but then didn’t quite fit, and then another. Then I came to a spot where a beautiful highway bridge hangs way up in the sky over a deep canyon and a little creek, wandered into town, and thought, ‘This is the place.’ ”
Guinn has done his homework well, getting the period detail and language down just right while polishing an adventurous tale that never fails to please. Meanwhile, fans of the supernatural may remember Superior as the setting for the superior supernatural thriller The Prophecy, where the streets are menaced by a very effective Christopher Walken. That Cash gets himself in plenty of pickles contending with the forces of greed and redeye whiskey-induced mayhem suggests a spry action hero for the movie role, perhaps along the lines of a Woody Harrelson or a Channing Tatum.
Guinn hasn’t gotten to the point where he’s cast the film version in his head, though. “I’ve got the next two books to write,” he says. “I’ve got to get Cash out of trouble and out of Arizona, and back in trouble again, too.” Readers with a liking for the Wild West and its rough-and-tumble ways will be glad to follow Cash McLendon along the trail.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.