Monday, June 14, 2010

Nina Vida's Texicans

I was flattered when Nina Vida, the author of seven well-regarded novels, sent me a copy of The Texicans last year. Subsequently we became facebook friends and I added her blog to my blogroll. Now her revisionist Western, set in 1840s Texas, has finally made it through the Stack. Of course I don't know what to expect with submitted novels. Most of the books that get into the Stack are chosen by me, not the other way around. But I'm definitely open to suggestion, I add books that people mention to me, that are on lists of various kinds, that sound from a description like they might be up my alley and so on. That someone else thought that I might like a book is as rigorous a filter as any, really.

And I did like The Texicans. It is a didactic, revisionist Western that makes sure to keep the reader entertained, written for story, and wearing what is clearly a good deal of research lightly. She presents European settlers as such, not as homogenized American cowboys, and she does not shy away from either the negative aspects of the Europeans nor the violent circumstances they encounter, notably violent and sadistic Comanche Indians. The Texas Rangers have deteriorated, following the end of the Mexican-American War and Texas's annexation by the US, into paramilitary bands that lynch blacks, hunt Indians and persecute Mexicans: right-wing vigilantes. There are slave-holding settlers from the South, and well-to-do Mexicans as well as poor Mexicans live in the same communities, more or less, as the whites.

The protagonist, Joseph Kimmel, is Jewish, and a curious character. He is intensely moral, brave, hardworking. He is also something of a masochist and a pushover. Like many people with personal boundary problems, he doesn't really like people too much; they inevitably inflict pain, it seems. But once involved he is ferociously loyal. His sense of duty prevents him from following his own desires, especially his desire for Aurelia, a Mexican woman with traditional herbalist knowledge who has been cast to the winds by a cholera epidemic. He remains with Katrin, an Alsatian refugee who he initially marries to save from a Comanche chieftain.

A master at this sort of thing is Annie Proulx, another contemporary is Louis Erdrich. They are bounded on one hand by the new revisionist Westerns (the avatar is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, but the genre's purest expression is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian), and on the other by the vibrant post-colonial North American woman's novel (For example Toni Morrison, one of the continent's greatest living writers, and Barbara Kingsolver, whose influence surpasses her fame).

Nina Vida's technique is very much to show rather than to tell, and the psychology of her characters comes to us only through their actions. All are virtuous, but none are entirely sympathetic. They are used to rough justice and suffering and don't expect much from one another. It is not a character-based novel, it is a story. Readers of historical novels, students of the West, and enthusiasts for the contemporary American novel will find much to admire.

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