Parker Goes West


In Appaloosa, Spenser's creator, Robert B. Parker, introduces another American hero

By Robert Gillespie
Photography by Fred Field

Photo by Fred Field
Robert B. Parker '54's new novel, transports us to the wild west. Just where in the west doesn't matter. It's the mythic west "that really exists only in movies and literature, in our collective imagination," Parker said in a recent telephone interview.

The hero, Virgil Cole, is the legendary gunfighter who consecrates his life to championing the law the moment he pins on a marshal's star. The aldermen of Appaloosa hire Cole and his sidekick, Everett Hitch, to take down a band of marauders who ride into town from a nearby spread, extorting vittles and whiskey, murdering and raping whenever they have a hankering. They're ranch-hands for Randall Bragg, "a spare man, wearing a black duster and a high-crowned black hat," whose imminent takeover of Appaloosa keeps the townfolk quaking in their boots.

Each one of Appaloosa's 59 terse chapters puts a charge in one convention or another of the western: the lady of eastern refinement opposite the tart with a heart who understands men better than the lady (and better than men understand themselves); the timorous shopkeepers in the dusty, wind-blown town; the barred cells in the marshal's office; the Boston House Saloon where Cole plays poker and gunplay erupts; the dry washes where Cole and Hitch track kidnappers; a skirmish with Kiowa Indians. And, the inevitable confrontation of good and evil, the showdown in the street.

In the hills above town a wild Appaloosa stallion roams with his mares and foals, needing no other reason for being than to protect and preserve his herd. Cole needs no other reason for being than to assert six-gun law.

#recentreleases9402#left#'The best-selling author of 32 novels featuring Boston private eye Spenser, Parker acknowledges that Cole derives from the same archetype as the urban private eye""the cowboy dismounted and moving gracefully through the streets of the city. . . . My doctoral dissertation was on the American hero, so I have all of this crap that I still know. And I can't get rid of it!" That delivered in gruff stage voice.

Virgil Cole, unlike the gregarious, sunny Spenser, is an inward, broody man of few words. In the western, inarticulateness bespeaks nobility, courage, a hard gemlike morality. That's why Everett Hitch, Cole's partner for 15 years and a gunhand with gumption, is qualified by his West Point education to be the voice intelligent enough to narrate the story. Like Nick Carraway on Gatsby in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (a novel Parker says he's almost never unaware of when he's writing), Hitch tells Cole's story because someone has to tell it for him. The hero can't speak of his own exploits; it'd be puffery and the ruin of his heroic stature and purity of purpose. Cole's unwavering stand on the law must be superhuman, and Hitch, though he witnesses events with an outsider's considerable insight, is the man of lesser stature who must underscore how magnificent, even eerily magical, the hero is.

The western may be simpler, Parker says, than the detective story. "I don't know that it's simpler to write, but the hero's actions are less circumscribed by the context. There're fewer people and more openness and space and fewer rules. That's part of its charm. The goodness and badness can be black-hatted and white-hatted." And the western, unlike the detective story, doesn't much rely on mystery. The western's appeal, Parker says, is "the isolation, the individuality, the outside-ness, the self-actualization through violence."

Appaloosa wins the triple crown for galloping pace, grand drama, crisp characterization. You're not about to bed down before finding out what happens in this familiar American fable. And it doesn't play out quite the way it always has.

When a train approaching town spooks the wild horses, the east is encroaching on the west. Bragg, reemerging with a presidential pardon, makes a power grab that now benefits the town"development of Appaloosa into the finest city between the Rockies and the Mississippi River. Cole makes possible a world that makes Cole irrelevant.

"When you read a western novel you know that that way of life is doomed," Parker said. "So there is something implicitly tragic in the western because it is a way of life that is passing as you read it." Whether Virgil Cole kills or is killed in a shootout, he's as done for as the western culture that made him.

Appaloosa follows Parker's 2001 western, Gunman's Rhapsody, his version of the Earps' gunfight at the O.K. Corral. These days he's writing three books a year, one each on the adventures of his three series heroes, Sunny Randall, Jesse Stone, and Spenser, but he says he might mount up another western if Appaloosa sells well"or is made into a film.

One thing Parker does promise: he won't do science fiction.