Edited by James Thomas and D. Seth Horton, Best of the West 2009

Publisher: University of Texas Press
2009, 265 pages, paperback, $19.95

among the many powerhouse authors included in Best of the West 2009 are Lee K. Abbott, Louise Erdrich, Dagoberto Gilb, Antonya Nelson, Joyce Carol Oates, and Annie Proulx. The eighteen stories composing the collection carry the reader through a variety of western regions and reveal a diverse range of stories and voices. If anything, the flaw of Best of the West 2009 lies not in the stories included–these stories are worthwhile reading for anyone interested in literary fiction or exploring the idea of the “American West”–but in the stories that are missing. It is likely impossible for any single-volume collection to capture the entire West, especially when defining “the West” is troubling territory.

In their editors’ note prefacing Best of the West 2009, James Thomas and D. Seth Horton comment on the expansive and often contradictory nature of western culture. The West is a place, they write, where “cowboys wear tennis shoes and bankers wear cowboy boots.” I witnessed many similar cultural convergences as a teenager in Portland, Oregon, during the 1990s: one distinct memory involves a pit stop some friends and I made while en route to the Deschutes National Forest. Well on our way to the wilderness, we saw a hand-painted sign advertising espresso at a truck-stop. Inside the truck-stop we found a group of middle-aged lumberjacks–beer bellies, beards, flannel and all–sitting at a linoleum counter, sipping froth from cappuccinos. But that was the ’90s in the Pacific Northwest, after all: everyone drank designer coffee.

The Pacific Northwest’s favorite ’90s trend would soon be beloved worldwide–that virulent mammoth, Starbucks, made sure of it. Starbucks Coffee provides a perfect example of how corporate chains have altered the American landscape in the past few decades, a situation that casts suspicious light on the notion that contemporary American literature can reasonably be called “regional.” What had been housed in a small coffee bean stand in the 1970s in Seattle’s Pike Place Market is now a ubiquitous chain retailer, operating tens of thousands of stores worldwide. And although the chain’s seaport origins remain evident in the brand’s name and logo, the casual patron is more likely to associate Starbucks with a nearby strip mall than Seattle. Starbucks’ proliferation represents an undeniable change: the global explosion of corporate chains, and the consequent diminishment of local establishments, has eroded cultural and regional distinction in America. Our culture of chain restaurants and one-stop shopping megamarts is not the only reason this sense of “place” has been rapidly eroding in the United States. Contemporary Americans move from region to region more frequently than their parents or grandparents ever did, and technology allows us to easily communicate with those far away, thus greatly reducing the psychological impact of being in a new or different place. In 2009, “place” is both less distinct and more easily transcended than it has ever been for human society.

Thus there are two problems with the goal of creating a regional anthology. First, as the editors note (and Rick Bass echoes in his introduction to the book), it is nearly impossible to pinpoint a definition of the West when the area is so vast. Although the West is often praised for its dramatic natural beauty, it seems unreasonable to classify, as one region, a place larger than all of Western Europe and geographically diverse enough to include mountain ranges, forests, deserts, beaches, and plains. Antonya Nelson captures this geographical diversity beautifully in “Or Else,” as she chronicles the landscape changes between Arizona and Telluride. She describes “the desert falling away mile by mile, shrubbery and rocks transforming subtly as he ascended, from prickly saguaro and desiccated scrub oak to piñon, then aspen and spruce, those more gracious, greener trees.”

The second problem with creating a regional anthology is cultural erosion, which applies to all American regions. Cultural erosion is the product of expanding corporate chains and technological advancement. By no means do all contemporary stories need to address cultural erosion (nor should we return to what was branded “K-Mart realism”), but those that rely heavily on setting have very limited options. Authors may either render settings realistically, incorporating those Wal-Marts and Starbucks, or they may choose instead to be selective about what they depict, omitting certain elements of contemporary culture and thereby (at least in some part) mythologizing a region’s culture. Several of the stories included in Best of the West 2009 skirt the problem of today’s shifting sense of place because they are set in the past–a past in which regional distinctions were much clearer. Louise Erdrich’s “The Reptile Garden,” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “Papa at Ketchum, 1961” set in 1972 and 1961 respectively, hold true to their settings as those places once existed. Another story in the collection, Susan Streeter Carpenter’s “Elk Medicine,” skirts the problem of the technological changes affecting today’s sense of “place” by removing characters from communication technology: the protagonist has no cell phone reception in rural Colorado and must go into town to make calls to her husband. The absence of communication allows the protagonist to experience the type of rugged individualism and sense of opportunity that has been traditionally associated with the West.

One story in the collection, Annie Proulx’s “Sagebrush Kid,” manages to overcome the hurdles of contemporary regional writing without setting the story in the past or stripping technology from the tale. Brilliantly, Proulx sets the beginning of the “Sagebrush Kid” in the “Old West,” on a stagecoach route in Wyoming, but immediately undermines clich&eacutes about the Old West. As the story develops, Proulx moves forward through time, showing how the region changes as Union Pacific, an interstate, and a coal mine invade (and eventually desert–or are driven out of) the area. It is through this exploration of both place and time, and the story’s understanding of how the West has changed, that Proulx achieves a story more about the cultural West than one merely set in the West. Perhaps the convergences we describe when we talk about the West are the key to understanding what western culture once meant–and what remains relevant today.

–Emily Howorth