I don’t know what took me so long to get around to this (probably) best-known of Oakley Hall’s works. Maybe the title put me off because I thought I might be getting into an Ann Rice world of vampires. Not a worry. Writer Working readers know my admiration for Hall (see my obit piece, May 5, 2008), and Warlock has only increased the admiration.
The premise is pretty simple–there’s a gunfight more or less modeled on the Tombstone Arizona event involving Wyatt Earp. But Hall is not writing a simple historical novel. He chooses the incident at his Acme Corral in a town named after a man they called a witch but who self-corrected to change the word to Warlock. So you have a a historical event that’s become an American myth peopled by legendary figures like the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, which Oakley turns into a powerful story about mythmaking, justice, the fragility of society. Along the way, you get involved with the battle between unions and corporations as well as the why’s and wherefores of government and the meaning of human existence itself.
It’s just a scrawny little mining town, Warlock is, unincorporated, a place with a couple of saloons, a few whores, a few respectable businesses and no church where a few unlucky souls have wound up after misadventures elsewhere. There are a few civic-minded folks who have hopes for its future and are in a Babbit sort of mode. We find the stock western characters–gamblers, gunfighters, renegade cowhands, a cattle boss bent on running the town, a wannabe judge with a drinking problem, a virtuous young woman running a boarding house. The law-abiders and others with a stake in stability hire a gunfighter to put stop to the terror of rampaging cowhands, and things proceed from there. But not in your stock western way.
These hard-bitten people are soul-searchers, it turns out. And there’s an educated storekeeper named Goodpasture who’s keeping a diary which we glimpse from time to time. Even the best of these characters do ugly things from time to time. They are always worried about why they or anyone else is doing something, searching for motives, ascribing motives out of their own wishful thinking, just as we lay upon our public figures our own wishes and wants and get disappointed when they are unable to divine and carry out our aspirations.
The hired gun is named Blaisedale (Blaise for “blaze”? as you can see from Goodpasture, names mean something in this novel.) He does a great job at the Acme corral. However, much as they wanted the dead men to be dead, some begin to talk about the justice of it, whether he did it right, and for the right reasons. And they begin to fear and envy him, and they divide into camps of people who revere him and others who despise him. These camps divide and redivide like amoebas as the plot of the book proceeds, and we begin to understand that Warlock is as much about us, the public that invests its “heroes” with qualities they don’t and can’t possess as it is about the main characters. It’s about people who hang around the mythic figures and how they try to assume roles that would have been impossible for them to imagine without them around–whether they fit the roles or not.
I could go on and on, for this is a complex book. But I’ll end with a couple of passages:
“…people don’t matter a damn. Men are like corn growing. The sun burns them up and the rain washes them out and the winter freezes them, and the cavalry tramps them down, but somehow they keep growing. And none of it matters a damn so long as the whisky holds out.”
“I am the black rattlesnake of Warlock. My mother was a timber wolf and my daddy a mountain lion and I strangled them both the day I was born.”
Those were the days. . .