Book review: Big Lonesome by Joseph Scapellato
In his bold debut story collection, Joseph Scapellato takes aim at the American frontier's familiar gun-toting, galloping figures and proceeds to blast 25 blistering holes clean through them.
Often amusing, thoughtful and poetic, Big Lonesome is a weird and wildly inventive collection of 25 uniquely imagined short stories focused on the mythologies of the American West and the archetypal nomadic characters who roam the vast, pockmarked, barren landscape.
Divided into three sections (Old West, New West and Post West), with some of the longer stories broken up by explanatory titles into mini episodes, the narratives feature a hotchpotch of eccentric cowboy drifters, gunslingers, wilful farm girls, sheriffs, women of ill repute, and even a cowgirl ‘born of a beef cow,’ all vividly dreamed up from the pungent cookfires of Western folklore.
In the New West section, the emphasis is on the changing physical and cultural landscape of America. The memory of the Old West has ‘worn vague’ as a result of the rise of cities and growth of immigrant populations, but in the Post West segment we find it still survives.
Characters ‘pass like coins’ from place to place, moving through saloons their grandfathers drank in and woods that Native Americans inhabited. On their journey through America, they carry with them stories passed on to them by their forefathers, whose histories and adventures live on from one generation to the next.
Arguably, the Old West and its spurs-and-saddle narratives of cowboys ‘alone or lonesomely together’ provide the most unexpected, colourful moments. Characters like the untameable ‘Horseman Cowboy’ with the overactive libido, and the macho ‘Mutt-Face’ with the ‘irascible open-mouthed grin’ who is riddled with insecurity, linger in the memory.
There is also a starkly amusing campfire scene where fourteen cowboys stare at a ‘dead man’ their dogs have found in a parched ravine and contemplate the diverse array of people they have brutally killed. Of the fourteen, Redondo’s atrocities stand out above the others, perhaps because his methods seem most novel – he and others have ‘driven a stampede’ into countless ‘scrambling and screaming’ men, women and children.
Of all the stories, the absurdly comic ‘Five Episodes of White-Hat Black-Hat’ is perhaps the best of the collection. Here, Scapellato serves up the traditional timeworn stereotypes but deviates from the expected path, presenting instead a more philosophical and introspective cowboy and, ultimately, a bleaker, more melancholy vision of the Wild West.
The black-hat cowboy and his gang of outlaws remain the fearsome source of evil we have come to expect from the genre’s best villains. Having ‘shot the sheriff’s ranch hands,’ kidnapped his daughters, rustled his cattle and stolen his cash, they then capture the ‘white-hat cowboy’ sent to bring them to justice.
The sensitive, ‘crying’ hero who we see ‘blushing’ while the outlaws defecate into the fire is no hero at all, merely a hopeless, impotent spectator. Tied to a cactus, then stuffed in a sack with his head poking out and slung over a horse, he is unable to do anything other than watch the outlaws set fire to tribal villages, shoot up settlers’ wagons, rob a bank, kidnap and kill ‘five gals,’ and do other cruel and violent deeds on their journey into town.
There is a prevailing pessimistic tone to the book – like the mother who buries a gun in the desert in an effort to save her teenage son, many of the characters cannot be saved. And the white-hat cowboy, crushed and defeated, is no more or less a hero than anyone else who aspires to do good.
The underlying message, if indeed there is one, may be for us to stop romanticising the past and learn to adapt to the present in order to survive.
Amusing and affecting and utterly unique, Scapellato’s absurd reimagining of the roughed-up, Stetson-wearing cowboy who once inhabited the American West will startle and surprise those accustomed to Western fiction. Big Lonesome is an impressive debut story collection by a canny, poetically talented storyteller.
(Mariner Books, paperback, £11.00)