Contrary to popular belief, I think that in general westerns are better written now than they ever were. Forget about western movies and westerns on TV, I'm referring to western novels, set in the American West.
The Spur Award winner this past year was Robert Flynn's Echoes of Glory, so fine that it made my short list of best novels of 2010. Such a splendid novel all the way around, a western, a satire, and a literary novel, told with wit and nuance.
The only reason this novel hasn't gotten more acclaim is that not too many have bothered to read it, being a modern western and published only in trade paperback.
For many years, the Spur Awards featured mediocre novels, whether by design or through politics, I couldn't say. But good westerns continued to be published, at least two or three a year.
In recent years, the quality of winners has greatly increased. This year's Spur Award in the YA Novel division was won by Johnny Boggs' coming-of-age story, Hard Winter: A Western Story (Five Star Western Series). I read it when it first came out and thought it might take top honors over all. Boggs writes a good western every time, it seems, and after reading Camp Ford, I decided to buy all of his backlist of novels, most of them now on my to-be-read shelf.
Year before last, Thomas Cobb's Shavetail won the Spur Award. Cobb became known that year, not because of this excellent novel, but because of the novel he wrote a decade earlier, which was then made into the movie Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges.
A naturalistic novel, the plot of Shavetail builds around the possible abduction of a woman by Apaches. Like Helen of Troy, she becomes a mythic symbol, a cause for war, a McGuffin which may be real or may be wrongly imagined. Although quite a few westerns have been built on similar premises, Thomas Cobb's fine novel is not predictable. Reading it, you feel like anything might happen. Try to guess and be surprised. There is no good-guy/bad-guy dualism; instead there are human universals and a sense of naturalism.
The snake in the opening paragraph, "suspended in a state neither asleep nor awake," seems to be a literary metaphor for death-in-life, as later there are suggestions of an awakening of mindfulness. Different readers will see different levels of meaning, but it is still a fine read even if you see nothing beyond the surface story in here.
It is no spoiler here to say the book has an ending that many should enjoy, genre western readers as well as mainstream readers of literary novels. The author did his historical research and he names his sources in an afterword to the novel. The story is well paced and although there are many nuances, they are not at all difficult to discern. The hardcover edition is handsome and easy to read.