A fan of 'The Real West' finds it both enchanting and harsh


September 18, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"Of Chiles, Cacti, and Fighting Cocks: Notes on the American West," by Frederick Turner, 211 pages, North Point Press, Berkeley, Calif., $19.95. So many books have been written about The Real West that a certified Easterner can fairly wonder whether there really is a Real West, what it is, or even where it is. Frederick Turner, a confirmed Westerner, finds The Real West in the terrain of the heart and the imagination.

Turner, perhaps befittingly, was born in Chicago and grew up singing "Don't Fence Me In," "Pistol Packin' Mama," and "Deep in the Heart of Texas."

He believed in Cowboys and Indians, in Tom Mix and the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown and Red Ryder.

"The West was for us," he writes of his Chicago boyhood, "truly a country of the mind, 'and so eternal'."

And for him the West became romantically real eternally when he went to a dude ranch in Cody, Wyo., with his family in 1951. He's enchanted as soon as he steps off the train.

"In this and forever after my sense of scale was wrenched into a greater amplitude, and unwittingly I became a fellow to those explorers of the previous century whose eyes had first gazed on the stretches of the American West and who never afterward were able to refocus them on the smaller and tamer visions of the known."

Turner can turn a phrase as felicitously as an old cowboy could drop a rope around a mustang's neck.

He writes of mustangs in the book of essays he calls "Of Chiles, Cacti and Fighting Cocks." And he writes of Billy the Kid and of the giant Saguaro cactus in its dry spaces and of Chile peppers.

His tastes are catholic: He writes with equal relish (no doubt jalapeno) of James Willard Schultz, who wrote of "My Life as an Indian,'' and Will James, who wrote "Lone Cowboy" and "Smoky.''

Turner writes of the Czech kolbase sausage festival at Deming, N.M., of Basque shepherds in Colorado and Nevada and California, of fighting cocks Arizona, and of Balboa and the Pacific.

He doesn't flinch from the harsher realities of The Real West either. When beef barons take to guns to rid the range of mustangs, he observes that "there is something about all that space, loneliness, and the prevalence of firearms that has always tempted men to randomly kill wild creatures . . ."

He writes with impeccable fairness about "cockers" who don't like writers very much. They don't like them at all, in fact. Turner meets hard stares when he's introduced at the Kemper Marley Tribute 12-cock Derby outside Phoenix.

Turner writes vividly of the fight, and poignantly of the death. He writes of a wounded bird: "The gray staggered up from its line, made a blind, undirected move, then fell on its side. Its body heaved once but not again.

"The cockers picked up their birds, shook hands, one patted the other on the back as they exited."

These guy like to talk about the ancient origins of their "sport," and bitch about humane societies, but it all comes down in the end to killing chickens.

Turner loves the vast, echoing land west of the Mississippi. Flying into San Francisco for his first view of the Pacific, he watches "the gradual rise of the land westward through snow-flecked tablelands and mesas; then, at last, the mountains, high, white, solemn."

He comes to the Pacific and feels the elegiac note that throbs beneath the landscape of much of American literature.

"There is something brooding, somber here: the memory of bright hopes --ed by first encounters with magnificent lands and seascapes, of a paradise poisoned by dreams saved from fantastic pettiness only by their size and tragic consequences, of death and utter disappointment, of blighted seaboards and blasted rain forest, of entire native cultures, fragile as feathers, that disappeared."

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