Nature, nostalgia, and a certain Western frame of mind

Writers of the Purple Sage: An Anthology of Recent Western Writing, edited and with an introduction by Russell Martin and Marc Barasch. New York: Viking/Penguin Books. 340 pp. $19.95 hard-cover, $7.95 paperback.

I just keep on being the way I am.

- Merle Haggard

Driving at night through Wyoming, one gets a fragile sense of order, created by the chain of taillights ahead. It stretches on for miles. Stopping for gas, one looks up at the great celestial arcs, unclouded by city lights from below.

Such beauty makes a lonely man feel philosophical.

People are relatively rare in the West. Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah , Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico - in parts of these states one finds few or no traces of a human past. As the introduction to ''Writers of the Purple Sage'' points out, ''Historical continuity . . . is scarce.''

Granted. But in the desert I played in as a child, we discovered history - if not continuity - in arrowheads and shark's teeth. The Mojave Desert was a prehistoric ocean.

The history of the place is an irreducible part of the story. In some cases, history is natural history.

An excerpt from Ivan Doig's ''This House of Sky'' tells of a Montana winter so bad it brings a quarreling father and stepmother into momentary unity of purpose. And N. Scott Momaday's prose masterpiece, ''The Way to Rainy Mountain, '' celebrates the vast plain: ''The great billowing clouds that sail upon it are shadows that move upon the grain like water, dividing light.'' This is timeless, or recurrent, history - but history, nonetheless. And these are indigenous voices, as permanent as a human voice can be.

In Robert Mayer's ''The System,'' an ex-convict and his girlfriend play the horses by collecting stubs and betting according to probability. Since Mayer is from New York, I suppose he must be writing about the New West.

''Home Fires,'' by David Long (a Bostonian), is a compact, thematically-packed story about a lonely trucker who has an opportunity to cut loose from the past - his wife and his horse - but decides (if that's the word) to go back home. ''The full white moon floated above the unawakened houses, above the familiar rise and fall of the mountains,'' Long writes, attesting to the fact that nostalgia haunts the West, history or no history.

The possibilities of freedom, of novelty, can break a writer, even a good one. Fantasy projected on the void may seem as real as art. Elizabeth Tallent's story, ''Why I Love Country Music,'' responds to that possibility with courage. ''He came toward me, lowering his head,'' she writes, flirting with the ground prime-time TV stakes out for ratings. ''He was not clumsy. Miners never are, in the dark.'' There is much invention here. The story is entertaining, and the anthology would be less representative without it.

For proof that there is life (and literature) after prime time, however, turn to William Kittredge's ''We Are Not in This Together.'' A beautifully written story, it centers on Darby, a woman ''from a town called Wasco, in the great Central Valley of California,'' and Halverson, her 42-year-old boyfriend, who ''spent his working days drifting the truck down the narrow asphalt alongside the Flathead River, hauling cedar logs to the shake mill below Hungry House.''

''We are not in this Together'' forces the homely but brave folk who seem a part of the West, past or present, to confront a rare, horrible, news-type event. Yet life goes on.

The stories we tell are mostly lies - inadequate somehow to the way in which we really live. The West has been almost lost in that way. But the best stories of the purple sage have a quality of not being told at all, but of just having happened.

The best storyteller in these pages is the least intrusive. Richard Ford is both realistic and fantastic, raunchy and romantic in ''Winterkill.'' He has a great ear for the music of Western voices.

''I was in love,'' Nola said quietly as the bartender set her drink down and she took a sip. ''And now I'm not.''

''That's a short love story,'' I said.

Fortunately ''Winterkill'' doesn't end there; far from it.

''Writers of the Purple Sage'' whets one's thirst for more of the same and sharpens one's appetite for the nourishment of the well-written word.

Beyond that, these stories share a certain compassion for the lumberjacks, cowboys, ex-cons, barmaids, Indians, and mystics who people them. Compassion must be the reader's lot, too. We either say (with Elizabeth Tallent), ''I like knowing the limits,'' or we don't. And if we don't, we will have missed the West.

Unlike most ideological or sentimental fiction, these stories don't challenge us to change, so much as to keep on being the way we are.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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