New Insight on Old West

AT 15,000 feet over Santa Fe, you can almost see the Old West. The landscape empties and expands into a surreal terrain. The air seems to have been sucked away, leaving only a dry light. For a few moments in your ascent, as the towns and roads diminish, you have an inkling of the exhilaration and terror felt by those heading West in the 1860s. It must have seemed like stepping off the edge of the earth. Moments of insight like this are rare. The trite, yet comfortable versions of the Old West, absorbed since childhood, quickly flood in. Film, fiction, television, and even the games of youth, have portrayed the Old West as an American utopia - a physical space symbolizing the possibility of a life unadulterated by tradition.

``Silver Light'' operates on the postmodern premise that one cannot peel away these fictional Wests to reveal a real Old West. No matter how fastidious the historical research, the American West resists being separated from its fictions - and its fictionmakers. Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, and Willa Cather inhabit the same space. Fiction and fact, past and present, dream and film interpenetrate. To write accurately about the Old West, one must make room for all of them.

And so it must happen that one of this novel's main characters, Susan Garth, a photographer with strong resemblances to both painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Laura Gilpin, is the daughter of Matthew Garth, the fictional character played by Montgomery Clift in Howard Hawks's classic 1948 film ``Red River.'' Susan's best friend, Bart Blaylock, may have been fathered by Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson. You get the picture. It's d'ej`a vu all over again.

Consider the perplexity of an author who indulges in this complex kind of representation. If he makes stock characters like Billy the Kid too round, too fully human, he risks losing the mythic quality of their lives. On the other hand, if he sticks strictly to the narrow confines of familiar legend, no amount of clever dialogue will interest us in the inner lives of cardboard characters.

Real fictional characters? There's the problem in a fancy verbal conundrum. Readers will accept the most convoluted narrative strategies if a character is sufficiently engrossing. Readers willingly suspend disbelief, making all writing, even nonfiction, a variety of fable. Remember how long Umberto Eco's ``The Name of the Rose'' was on the bestseller list? People struggled through it because its rich textures were ultimately rewarding.

Thomson's novel is no echo of Eco's. Nevertheless, he makes some shrewd observations about the way in which the Old West has occupied our collective imagination. Frequently these views emerge because of Susan Garth's vocation. Photography allows Thomson to mediate on the act of mirroring reality. Putatively the most automatic and objective record-keeper, photography comes to symbolize the difficulties of authentic representation.

Through Garth's sibylline recollections of her career, Thomson observes that the modern medium of photography is inculcated with the ancient, dangerous magic of image-making. Images are not to be trusted. Moreover, as Garth muses, ``the greatest beauty may depend on being never seen.''

That transcendental strain has played through our culture for 200 years. It is the anthem of the American experience. Nathaniel Hawthorne strummed it in his novels and the Hudson River School painters made it a major motif. The landscape photographers of the 19th century, whom Garth approximates, would let mountains vaporize in the far distance of their photographs in order to signify that some earthly things cannot be measured and tamed. To use Garth's words, America has long been understood as a ``land ... too powerful for composition.''

As space opera gradually replaced horse opera in the American imagination of the frontier, most of these values were transferred intact. In many ways, ``Star Trek'' is an intergalactic wagon train, and the shootout at the O.K. Corral is perpetually reenacted with lasers.

But, as they say out West, this sort of speculation can be all hat and no cattle. ``Silver Light'' makes one think, but one is always aware of the act of thinking and analyzing. The novel's jump-cut story, unlubricated with anything like Doctorow's sassy humor, never insinuates itself into the reader's consciousness. Like Santa Fe at 15,000 feet, the book trades palpable air for occasional insight. Those with a hankering for postmodern artifice will be pleased with the deal. But to tell you the truth, I'm a sucker for old-fashioned snake oil.

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