The Western Novel Goes To Hell In Robert Coover's 'Ghost Town.'
By Jeff Yanc
NOVEMBER 2, 1998:
Ghost Town, by Robert Coover (Henry Holt). Cloth, $24.
HAVE YOU EVER tried to explain one of your nightmares to a friend, only to have the resulting description sound like a bad joke relayed by a 7-year-old? You know, a frustratingly disjointed pile-up of vague symbolism, fragmented logic, and bewildering conclusions that makes sense in your head, but somehow turns into a plot synopsis for a bad, late '60s Mexican wrestling film as soon as it leaves your mouth? The dream logic so captivating in your slumbering gray matter now seems like the impossible-to-recall remnants of a very regrettable drug trip. Now, have you ever read a novel that manages to approximate the disorienting feeling of experiencing a nightmare while wide awake? Robert Coover's latest, Ghost Town, is just such a bizarre, experimental western/horror/postmodern satire, delivering that experience in a uniquely unsettling fashion.
Coover is perhaps best-known for his postmodern re-workings of well-worn literary genres and fairy tales, such as his recent novel Briar Rose, a swooningly erotic version of the Sleeping Beauty story. Now he turns his literary scalpel to the dust-coated Western genre, with similarly fascinating results. Using the rambling narrative structure of an illogical nightmare as his primary tool of deconstruction, Coover exposes the rusted innards of the familiar Western story, and transforms them into something at once comic, grotesque, and deeply compelling.
In true postmodernist fashion, Coover dips freely into the pop-culture well for inspiration. Telling the story of a lone gunslinger who finds himself journeying through a hellish ghost town that may or may not actually exist, the novel evokes the impression of a Louis Lamour novel brought to the screen by director David Lynch, seasoned with the giddy, gruesome humor of a Monty Python sketch, with a heavy dollop of Samuel Beckett-like existential angst set to the twangy sounds of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti-Western soundtrack.
Coover, an author with a love of linguistic game playing and evocative imagery, displays his intention to create a palpable mood rather than a conventional storyline in the first paragraph of Ghost Town: When the novel's anonymous hero (a lone cowboy who owes an obvious debt to Clint Eastwood's laconic Man-With-No-Name character) first rides into the dusty, sun-bleached desert which will serve as the setting for the entire story, the reader is treated to a precise description of the lay of the land: "Bleak horizon under a glazed sky, flat desert, clumps of sage, scrub, distant butte, lone rider. This is a land of sand, dry rocks and dead things--buzzard country--and he is migrating through it. Because: it is where he is now, and out here there's nothing back there to stop for, no turning back either, nothing back there to turn to."
With a staccato blast of wordsmithing and symbols that reverberate like the firing of a well-oiled six-shooter, Coover manages to cleverly evoke both the visual and thematic conventions of the genre. Critics have long considered the desolate landscapes and emotionally disenfranchised characters that drive Western novels and films to be direct descendants of existentialist thought. Ghost Town's gunslinger is no exception.
We never learn who or what the gunslinger really is, aside from the fact that he roams the world alone, believing in nothing and trusting no one. He remains an ambiguous catalyst throughout the novel, a springboard for an increasingly hallucinatory series of events and characters that constantly bedevil his fateful descent into ghost town. While the "story" consists almost entirely of phantasmagorical situations that follow no logical narrative pattern, Coover remains steadfast in his goal to continually knock the reader off balance by trotting out an endless series of Western clichés--the trusted horse, the limping old codger as Sheriff, the good-time saloon gal with the heart of gold, etc.--then brutally twisting them into nightmarish caricatures to illuminate the staleness of such conventions.
In Coover's distorted take on Western mythology, the gunslinger's trusted horse is killed and eaten by the increasingly creepy town folk, only to magically reappear several scenes later, fit as a fiddle. The hero is then forced to ingest the horse's testicles in a queasy literalization of the genre's sexual linking of man and beast. The crotchety old sheriff, involved in one too many viscous knife fights, has the unfortunate tendency to have various body parts drop bloodily from his body at inopportune moments. The saloon gal, with her trademark ruby stickpin jammed provocatively through her cheek, eventually beds, marries, and tries to kill our hero, before inexplicably morphing into the hard-driving leader of a gang of train robbers. Events get even stranger as the novel progresses, producing scenes of Western weirdness so bizarre that even The Wild, Wild West's Robert Conrad would be forced to change his expression.
Much like the gunslinger, the reader of Ghost Town is never sure what to believe. Events unfurl and distort at such a fast clip, that by the end of the novel, when the town is literally rearranging and imploding before our hapless hero's eyes, the very idea of trying to distinguish nightmare from reality has long since vanished. The gunslinger archetype, typically the very epitome of existentialist free will and self control, is here reduced to a tiny toy cowboy in an elaborate, cosmic game of cowboys-and-indians orchestrated by a much higher power (in this case, the author himself).
Far from being an empty exercise in postmodern jokiness, however, Coover's novel latches onto the importance of questioning conventions to address meatier issues. By creating as his hero a cowboy who's aware that he's just a literary convention, Coover challenges readers to question their own reliance on prefab narratives and storytelling techniques--to engender a passion for fiction that pushes boundaries and defies easy interpretation.
Ghost Town is a wildly inventive experiment that manages to be both linguistically intriguing and intellectually thought-provoking. But it is not a comfortable read--Coover's prose resonates with the clammy sweatiness of a fever dream, juxtaposing existential dread with sinister eroticism and splattery violence. It doesn't slide down the cerebral gullet like a cool shot of sarsaparilla. The violent blasts of nightmarish imagery and wordplay vividly display Coover's intent to agitate at the basic level of the "word". It is heartening to see an author as prolific as Coover (Ghost Town is his 16th novel) continue to seek out new ways to tell a story, and throw down the gauntlet for readers who crave inventive fiction rather than a formulaic literary product (the novel won't easily translate into a John Grisham-style blockbuster starring Matt Damon).
Unfortunately, by the novel's end, the law of diminishing returns creeps in, and the aggressively inventive prose and narrative discontinuity become wearying, with style threatening to overwhelm substance. Luckily, the novel is a slim 150 pages, and Coover is a smart enough writer to realize where too much of a good thing becomes just that. He realizes it's more effective to recount only the good parts of a nightmare, and leave the rest to his audience's imagination.
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