A couple of months ago, I had a long conversation with a friend who'd just returned from Austria and Germany. She told me that Germans have an expressive fondness for the American West, mainly inflamed by the late 19th and early 20th century, over-the-top westerns of Karl May, whose characters, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, represent and expand the image of the West that has seeped across the world.
"There was a cowboy-themed store near my apartment in Vienna," my friend explained.
Gunslingers, bacchanalian drunkenness and cigar-store Indians are the first things that come to mind when someone mentions the Wild West, and that is exactly the kind of myth-making that Willard Wyman seeks to expose in his novel Blue Heaven, the kind of "advertising," his hero remarks, "that wasn't true in the first place." The sequel to his award-winning High Country (his protagonist in that book, Ty Harden, makes a lengthy cameo here) reveals the real west of practical dreams, loneliness and hardship.
Blue Heaven starts off in a big way in 1902. After Wyman's hero, Fenton Pardee, a packer for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, survives a horrific train wreck, he decides to abandon his life on the road and sets out through the land on a strange odyssey. Eventually settling in the Montana Rockies, Fenton establishes a packing business (guiding vacationers into the mountains) with Tommy Yellowtail, a Salish Indian who acquaints him with "the country that would make its way into his heart." We are introduced to a gaggle of hardy laborers, charming drinkers and a strong woman in the guise of Cody Jo Taylor, an eastern schoolteacher hired by the Swan Valley community. Frequent interludes in Missoula's Bar of Justice, an evening or two at a whorehouse and many conversations about the changing west ensue. I won't reveal more of the plot, because there isn't more of a plot to reveal.
This is altogether Fenton's tale, and Wyman makes the most of his emcee, drawing him as a quiet worker trying to make a life for himself in the wild, meditating on the artificial view most people have of his land while packing for rich tourists. Adding Cody Jo to his "mostly true" story, Wyman inserts a smart contrast between the "rugged" and the "intellectual" halves of the country, and demonstrates the culturally enforced idiocy of the distinction.
None of which is to say that Blue Heaven doesn't have its faults. At times, the book drags as Wyman elaborates on packing routines, the care of horses and mules, and a few trips into the mountains that seem to go on indefinitely. To be fair, though, the intermittently plodding account is more a problem of Wyman's pseudo-factual story than of his storytelling; and at its worst, it is a monotonous narrative told very well. Entertaining scenes do crop up to break the frontier tedium now and then: wild horses stampeding across UM's campus, the entirely touching romance between Cody Jo and Fenton, and Ty Harden's departure for World War II, which concludes the book.
At its best, Blue Heaven reinvents its genre. Wyman has researched his topics excellently (his conjuring of Depression-era Montana is as clear as a photograph), and his control over his characters is comprehensive and devoted. The book would be worth a read for his dialog uealone, whose stilted cadence reminds me of True Grit's Shakespearian folksiness:
"A girl likes to know what tempts her in the moonlight will look okay over coffee in the morning."
"I seen her at breakfast many times," Buck said. "It doesn't seem to impress her."
"Maybe because you act like it's moonlight at breakfast."
As a former packer and English instructor, Wyman is the ideal navigator through the mercurial and hardscrabble Old West. Exploring the irreversible shift in America from the founding of Glacier National Park to the beginning of World War II, he manages to tell a story that is both solitary and socially probing, filled with intimately crafted, totally believable people.
And it is the characters that make Blue Heaven so enjoyable, and that keeps Wyman's meandering tale from being an instruction manual on the topic of packing. People like Jasper Finn and his "bear fantasies," the tragedy of Paint Boy under the influence of the Black Robes, Buck with his constant pining for love and Cody Jo, a thoroughly three-dimensional woman rendered with great love and intelligence.
In the end, the overly ponderous descriptions that slacken the middle sections of Blue Heaven can't disrupt the thoughtful, biographical anecdotes and historical consciousness. As well as a study of a self-contained community, it is also a significant debunking of the myth of the settling of the West from the perspective of those who did the settling. Wyman has written an effective history of quiet existence at a time when the world was becoming loud.