Welcome To Hard Times Essay

In one chaotic drunken spree the Man from Bodie destroys the nascent town of Silver Sun, Dakota Territory, raping and rampaging his way through the streets as cowardly townsmen look on helpless.  The few survivors pick up the pieces, change the town's name to Hard Times and slowly rebuild, anxiously awaiting the evil man's inevitable return.

A funny thing happened as the Left attempted to undermine one of the ur-myths of the American psyche; while trying to deconstruct the Western and counter it with the anti-Western, they managed to create a body of literature that was simply absorbed into the genre.  Films like High Noon, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch and the Spaghetti Westerns, novels like Lonesome Dove and this one; all are essentially efforts to expose the ideology of the Western as a lie by introducing brutality, whores, drunkenness, cowardice, despair, genocide, etc. into the equation and each has simply been swallowed and folded into the Western genre.  Larry McMurtry is the most amusing victim here.  Lonesome Dove was published to much fanfare about how it represented a new pinnacle in the anti-Western mode, but it has instead been transformed into a mini-industry with sequels and prequels, mini series and weekly series.  McMurtry has become a prisoner of the very legends he set out to destroy.  Likewise, Cormac McCarthy was thought of as an heir to Faulkner; his greatest novel was considered to be Blood Meridian, an ultraviolent Western, and noone read him.  Then he published the much more mainstream All the Pretty Horses (see Review) and suddenly he was a prize winning, best-selling author.  There followed two more installments in the Border Trilogy and today he would be considered a Western author, not substantially different than Zane Grey or Elmore Leonard, gone are his earlier Faulknerian pretensions.

This phenomenon is easily explained and the reason for it says much about the arrogance and willful blindness of these critics.  The very Westerns that they sought to demythologize were never as dewy eyed and hagiographic as they assumed them to be.  Take a look at three of the great archetypes of the genre.  The Searchers (see Review) is basically the story of how one man's hatred of Indians drives him over the edge.  To consider it to be an overly idealistic look at the West would be like considering Moby Dick and the portrayal of Ahab to be an overly idealistic look at whalers.  Similarly, Zane Grey's The Riders of the Purple Sage (see Review) depicts a West where good people stand little chance of surviving, to the point where the story ends with our heroes sealing themselves off from the rest of mankind in a hidden valley.  This is hardly the stuff of pastoral myth.  Likewise, in Jack Schaeffer's great novel Shane (see Review), the settlers are under constant threat from the big ranchers and Shane, the archetypal gunslinger, is basically welcome nowhere.  In each of these stories, the West is a horrible threatening place, filled with promise, but essentially hostile.  They present a much more complex and ambiguous view of the West than the advocates of the anti-Western seem to comprehend.

Doctorow, of course, has built his career on trying to expose the dark corners of the American soul: racism in Ragtime (see Review); McCarthyism in The Book of Daniel; industrialism in The Waterworks; and gangsterism in Billy Bathgate. The delightful irony is that he has become a megabestselling author and Ragtime has even made it to Broadway, hardly the reaction one would expect if his work was seriously taken as an attack on the national ideology and mythos by the public.  Instead, he's become simply one more purveyor, albeit a talented one, of historical fiction, his work informed more by nostalgia than by any revolutionary commentary on the American past.  Within that context, Welcome to Hard Times is a perfectly acceptable first novel and a readable, though not great, Western.

Hard Times is the name of a town in the barren hills of the Dakota Territory. To this town there comes one day one of the reckless sociopaths who wander the West to kill and rape and pillage. By the time he is through and has ridden off, Hard Times is a smoking ruin. The de facto mayor, Blue, takes in two survivors of the carnage–a boy, Jimmy, and a prostitute, Molly, who has suffered unspeakably–and makes them his provisional family. Blue begins to rebuild Hard Times, welcoming new settlers, while Molly waits with vengeance in her heart for the return of the outlaw. Here is E. L. Doctorow’s debut novel, a searing allegory of frontier life that sets the stage for his subsequent classics.

“A forceful, credible story of cowardice and evil.”
–The Washington Post

“We are caught up with these people as real human beings.”
–Chicago Sun-Times

“Dramatic and exciting.”
–The New York Times

“Terse and powerful.”
–Newsweek

“A taut, bloodthirsty read.”
–The Times Literary Supplement

“A superb piece of fiction.”
–The New Republic

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