Westerns have come a long way, baby! Far from the broody and moralistic white male-dominated classics of yore, the books on this list expand the possibilities of the western genre and take its conventions into fresh new territory.
Cormac McCarthy’s masterful Blood Meridian revitalized the literary world’s perception of the western, proving it could be elevated from its dusty pulp status into something more sophisticated by infusing the novel with unexpected noir accents and ramping up the violence to near-excruciating levels. Many of the authors represented here have followed McCarthy’s lead, cherry-picking motifs from different genres to widen or even subvert the genre, incorporating elements of horror, metafiction, satire or science fiction to broaden the audience’s assumptions of what constitutes a western novel.
While some of the books, like Joe R. Lansdale’s Paradise Sky, fall on the more traditional end of the western spectrum, the quality of the writing and its focus on an African American cowboy is worth calling out for inclusion here. And Patrick deWitt’s Booker Prize-nominated The Sisters Brothers will charm you with its picaresque story of the relationship between two brothers who are also assassins.
Vengeance, guns, outlaws the frontier – all the trappings of westerns are present and accounted for, but sometimes the lone man on horseback with something to prove is actually a woman, as in Cinda Gault’s This Godforsaken Place. And sometimes the western themes are played out not in the geographical west, but in Ireland and Pennsylvania, like Paul Lynch’s Red Sky in Morning.
So, even if you don’t think of yourself as being a fan of westerns, take a risk and broaden your horizons; mosey on out of your comfort zone and try one of these novels. Whether it’s the dark sweeping American epic of Philipp Meyer’s The Son or the jazz-poetry romp of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, there’s a good chance you will be pleasantly surprised at their relevance. Because while the presentation of westerns may have evolved, they have endured because their central themes of good and evil, violence and struggle, still resonate with modern readers, no matter how the story is told.