Bookpost: The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard figures large in my literary and intellectual life. When I was about 13, at a point when I had decided that reading was not for me, I found Hombre on my father's shelf and read it in a weekend and then again. Looking back, I can see I fell hard for the archetypal antihero and that spare, mythical style. I read everything I could find by Leonard, but thanks to a knowing librarian it also became a gateway to many great crime writers and eventually to novelists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I have reread Hombre probably a dozen times and have often recommended it to students.

This collection was released in 2004. Most of the thirty stories in this collection have that same mythic quality to them, being about men (mostly -- some boys and women as well) forced to survive in the barren setting of the Arizona wilderness, negotiating between various cultural elements. Leonard positions his protagonists between the conventional detachment of the American world, the guttural instinct of the Apache world and the moral chaos of the outlaw. A perfect example is 'Trouble at Rindo's Station.' The protagonist is Ross Corsen, a former reservation manager forced out by the dishonesty of the government agent. He and the other whites are attacked by an Apache renegade and successfully escape through personal bravery but also by playing the renegade off of the legitimate Apache chief, the corrupt Americans and a pair of stagecoach robbers. Corsen is marginalized by the 'legitimate' whites because of his contact with the Apaches, but that contact is the source of his strength, a common element of the characters in these stories. Part of the pleasure of the collection is watching how the outsider-as-savior plays out again and again, and how Leonard over time complicates and develops the archetypes into more interesting and thoughtful iterations.

The historical value of these stories adds to the pleasure of them. Most of the stories were written in the 1950s as Leonard developed his skills as a writer. They were for inexpensive magazines, and they have that wonderful relentlessness typical of pulp writing that can still be seen in his writing. The last three stories were written later, and there is a self-awareness to them that reflects a different attitude toward the genre, a more overt expression of the social values of the late 20th century and more complexity in the narrative voice that is easily recognizable to readers of his novels.

For myself, I grew up in the American West, and I visited my grandparents in Tucson every spring break. My grandfather was a Son of the Golden West or something like that, and he encouraged in me an appreciation of the environment where these stories take place. I now live a long way from the settings of these novels, both geographically and culturally. But as I search for the elements of American culture I wish to pass on to my sons, the mythology of cowboy culture is attractive. The ethos of the lone gunman; the need to adapt to the environment; the anti-heroic stance of the white man who understands and respects the Apache: these elements of these stories resonate with me and define a part of my identity as an American.