Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Warlock (Oakley Hall)

Warlock, Oakley Hall
Read: 17 March to 10 April 2013
5 / 5 stars

The venerable Thomas Pynchon wrote a laudatory back-cover blurb for Warlock, a book that he indirectly directed me to via his introduction to Richard FariƱa's Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me, wherein he details its prominent role in the pair's Cornell days and how their own whole sick crew adopted the vernacular of the beleaguered characters making their ways through this novel. I'm not even going to pretend like I have any business treading terrain already traversed and thoroughly owned by T. Ruggs but I was so blown away by this tome that I can't pass up an opportunity to add my surprised (and, at the time of this review's final revision process, somewhere in the hazy middle ground between wine-soaked and week-day hungover) admiration to the mix.

The Western is a genre that I find as dry and dusty as the landscape its tales so often play out against. I don't much care for the setting -- both in the geographic sense and the era itself -- nor do I have any pressing need to watch gun-battle climax after gun-battle climax (the heavy-handedness of such symbolism not even withstanding). While there are a few notable exceptions (I did love High Noon, which I only watched for the sake of a grade, as well as the veritable classic that is Back to the Future III), they are but a scant few oases in the vast wasteland of a genre that has offered little to hold my interest.

So even with Pynchon's literary ardor in mind, my interest in this book took a nosedive when I realized that it was a Western. Visions of whiskey-soaked tempers, petulant saloon girls and gun-totin' outlaws passed across my judgmental regard with the enthusiastic reception of a tumbleweed rolling along an abandoned mining town's long-forgotten roads.

Thankfully, 2013 is turning out to be the year of misguided misgivings, as various volumes have shattered my lukewarm (if that) expectations; Warlock proved to be no exception. It turned so many stale conventions on their heads that I had no choice but to take notice of how masterfully it asserted its claim on a bygone and often cliched era. The early-1880's peculiar zeitgeist became an effective vehicle for illustrating how times may have changed but the nature of man knows no chronological boundaries.

Pretty early in the book (like, the second page) comes a roll call of sorts introducing the cowboy outlaws comprising the San Pablo gang who are regarded, to varying degrees, as a united threat to the delicately balanced society of Warlock, a town that's a sort of reimagined Tombstone. But close on its heels (like, the next sentence) is the admission that "[t]here is no unanimity of opinion even now amongst those of us who believe them at least to be a regrettable element," allowing that only one of nearly a dozen named men is truly a menace to humanity and the rest are at the mercy of temperament, opinion and sobriety (or the lack thereof). The duality of the human animal is the most dominant force of this novel: There is no such thing as a "good" or "bad" man, just circumstances that bring out one side more than the other. Nary a character escapes a full examination of his or her integrity's strength, either through the (admittedly biased) eyes of others or by betraying the full range of their personalities in reaction to a host of dire situations, and it allows for Warlock to become populated by a hot-blooded, fully realized cast, each of whom has a specific role to serve in a unique capacity.

Because this book is also about perception and loyalty and how easily those two seemingly cut-and-dry ideals can be skewed according to circumstance and motivation, the reader is called to question even the most well-meaning of characters who let themselves fall victim to the simple human failing of being swayed by either public opinion or the limited view of a much bigger picture. One of the town's shopkeepers, for example, keeps a journal that allows for the novel's lone first-person perspective and, despite his determination to be as objective as possible, finds himself regarding other characters' well-intentioned actions with an increasing, though reluctant, distaste because he simply doesn't know the full story: The reader knows him to be a rational man and is forced to reconcile his mistakenly waning respect for admirable characters when the shopkeeper has proven himself to be an otherwise reasonable voice. It is no fault of his own, as he is operating with insight to only a small portion of a much more complicated story, but it forces the reader to consider just how difficult it is to remain untainted by faulty information and the powerful lure of partiality.

The result of all these dueling forces, both internal and external, is that heroes of this book aren't regarded by the lowly populous as heroes for very long, as the very human compulsion to aggrandize an extraordinary man to superhuman proportions is only rivaled in its desperate intensity by the cynical satisfaction of witnessing a revered figure plummet just as swiftly to reviled depths. Not that a modern-day audience can draw any contemporary parallels to such flagrant displays of schadenfreude, eh?

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