A couple of decades ago Mary McCarthy advised young American writers to ”go back and fill up the genres,” by which she meant they should use the paths blazed by pulp Westerns and detective stories to create serious fiction. A few writers — most notably Charles Neider with The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, Ron Hansen with Desperadoes, and Thomas Berger with Little Big Man — had some luck ”filling in” the Western, but America’s pulp genres never really spawned a New Novel. The reason is obvious: The movies already had filled in the genres. Classic films like The Big Sleep, The Seaachers, and The Godfather brought the detective, Western, and gangster genres to their peak.
David Thomson, the author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, seems to be moving in the opposite direction: Silver Light is perhaps the first Western novel inspired by Western movies. Or perhaps obsessed is a more accurate word. The old West of Silver Light is populated by ”real” characters (Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid) and ”reel” characters (Montgomery Clift’s Matthew Garth from Red River, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards from The Searchers). As in Suspects, his earlier novel, reel and real cross each other’s paths at different places and times; occasionally they kill each other; sometimes they have sex with each other. In one case, a reel character (Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) produces a fictional daughter who has sex with another reel character — though now that I think of it, I may be confusing her with the fictional character who is the daughter of the reel Matthew Garth. If I got it right, the character she has sex with is the fictional son of the reel Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), who, in a clever twist, is revealed to be the son of the reel character Cherry Valance (played by John Ireland in Red River), who was once the best friend of Matthew Garth…
That’s an awful lot of activity to produce a novel so enervating. The title obviously refers to the silver screen, but the novel doesn’t seem to have much affection for the characters or the movies they live in. Silver Light adds nothing to one’s enjoyment of any of the films; it might actually take something away if it didn’t almost fade to black while you are reading it. To paraphrase Alan Ladd’s words to Jean Arthur, a myth is just a tool, no better or worse than the writer who uses it. C