The Western setting of this closely focused narrative is a confirmation of the author’s identification with a region, as we know from his Western novels Desert Light and The Homestead and other nonfictional books relating to the West and to the border with Mexico. The text itself, however, insists that this Western setting is more than the ground of the action, or perhaps we should say that the realization of this “more,” the sense of natural abundance and mystery, is the action itself.
As we first encounter Samuel Adams White, inspector with the United States Customs Bureau, his wife is telling him that he is the most boring person she has ever known and that she wants a divorce. That she might have a point here for some reason or other is not a matter that the inspector of customs inspects, perhaps because he is unaccustomed to introspection.
Disoriented, he hesitates about his next step. He wonders where he is going to live, but he finds out the hard way that this is not really the question before him. Rather, he will have to deal with the question of whether he will live at all, and if so, as seems unlikely, of how he is going to live. The inspector Samuel Adams White will have to take a good look at a lot of things, though that is difficult to do when he is bound and gagged and stuffed in a bag and abducted by criminals and is also having some trouble controlling his excretory functions when there is no provision made for their relief.
What next? The inspector has no idea, though it does enter his mind later that the rogues who have him in their power have a grievance against him. He doesn’t quite comprehend his own culpability, but even if he did, such considerations are swept aside by the rush of events. And when I say “rush,” I mean rush.
The inspector has hit a nadir, and the point of such a rock bottom of despair and desperation is that it is the ground of recovery. The logic of Kierkegaard and the paradoxes of Dostoyevsky come to mind. Flannery O’Connor’s character The Misfit might have said of the inspector that he would have been a good man if there had been somebody there to abduct him every day of his life.
Now if I have begun these remarks about this Western tale with remarks about Westerns or books about the West, then I must also insist that the text itself is, unlike the inspector, quite self-aware. When the inspector buys some new clothes, we can see that he is playing with clichés that we know from many years of exploitation. “[H]e purchased blue jeans, three candy-striped shirts with yoked shoulders and pearly snap-buttons, a canvas duster . . . ” and so on. But his new life cannot be so easily acquired after all, and such decorations, the false image of a life he is not yet living, are stripped away.
In a related vein, he remembers something about Western romances, the cultural inheritance we associate with paperbacks and movies.
He read the works of Zane Grey, Jack Schaefer, and Walter van Tilburg Clark, but Louis L’Amour’s were his particular favorites. In these books the inspector recognized the America his father, a San Diego police officer, had taught him in his boyhood and in which he’d lost neither faith nor belief since: an America that won its battles, solved its problems, brought enlightenment and progress to the world, and had God on its side.
The ambiguity of the discourse is what distinguishes literature from word processing, and the unwinding of the presentation is through an askesis, a suffering, even a ritual humiliation or ordeal that is a necessary introduction to the reality of nature, so that an approach may be made through the human to the supernatural.
Yes, the inspector has a lot to learn. A toy poodle named Darlene is not, after all, protection in the wilderness, and water would have been useful, even welcome, in the desert. But what the inspector learns transcends physical survival, and as he experiences a transformation from death to life, the reader, compelled to follow, is rewarded for the journey. Following the protagonist, the reader is conducted through a series of reversals that constitute a triumph of formal mastery and symbolic extension as the customs inspector is last seen as a smuggler himself, as is necessary.
So I think the point here is not so much Louis L’Amour as it is The Waste Land and the larger resonances of medieval romance and mythology. A fortune-teller and the desert do strike some Eliotic overtones as this narrative reaches out of its mode of crisis and adventure to mount a spiritual vision and frame a moral fable. The sense at the end is that such a vision has been earned in the only possible way, and it has been powerfully imparted. So I have come away from Chilton Williamson’s book with a sense of the Western mode not only as medieval and Mexican, but also as Wagnerian or even Spenglerian. The Dimming of the Gods and the Undergoing of the Evening Lands is written into the face of nature and implies not an end but an unfolding that we see geologically and astronomically as well, if only we can see what we behold—or inspect.
Having the impudence to believe that writers want what readers want, and that what readers want is to have their lapels grabbed by the genteel mugging of narrative command, then I have to say that the three readers of Mexico Way whom I know have all testified to gratifyingly mussed lapels. Those three readers were not, as it happens, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, and Ernest Hemingway, but they might as well have been. And such a consideration leads me to certain predictions. One is that Mexico Way is going to continue to give readers what they can’t get in any other way. Such readers talk, and the word will spread. Second prediction: As a model of composition, of subtle simplicity, and of the control of diction and point of view, Mexico Way will be the object of study in creative-writing classes. And third: As the basis of a screenplay, Mexico Way is going to be a remarkable film, though noticing its cinematic possibilities is in no sense any neglect of its inherent achievement. As it is, this Western novel, Western in more than one sense, is the best fiction I have read in years.
[Mexico Way, by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (Rockford, IL: Chronicles Press) 130 pp., $18.95]