Disclaimer: I provided the cover and back illustrations for this novel. I’m going to provide my honest opinion on the book despite my involvement. But yeah, there’s no ethics in this here indie lit journalism, I’m part of Keaton’s Illuminati reptilian sleeper cell bent on world domination and for getting Kanye West the presidency in 20-whenever-the-hell and getting this book a good review is just the start of all our sinister plots.
David James Keaton’s Pig Iron took me to church and made me a believer. Believer in what, exactly? A believer in the often threatened new Golden Age for weird westerns that indie lit is inundated with every ten years or so. A believer in the oft-maligned (usually justifiably so) worn-out novel about men who want very much to kill each other but share more traits than they realize.
Yes to both, but mostly Pig Iron has made me a believer in the singular talent of David James Keaton’s storytelling. I read his first novel The Last Projector last year and took note that this was a new author who didn’t let his style override his ability to spin a damn good yarn. Or at the very least his indulgences were in step with my own and so I never minded his stubborn dedication to them. Where Projector felt like a five-course feast, Pig Iron comes across more like a perfectly sized and tightly-wrapped burrito.
This is mythic storytelling. Myths hold sway over us, because they reduce complexities and characters down to their root: symbolism. They infer instead of pontificate. Pig Iron boasts an ample amount of Old Testament charm. The deserts are burning desperate canvases; the men mostly dried brittle husks, violent, damned, and strangely beaming at this latest and final predicament.
The women conversely are mostly shell-shocked, hardened survivors from having to contend with the aforementioned men. All of the people in this book seem to be struck with that odd luxury of having nothing but time to kill while they wait around to die.
Most of the story takes place in the desert town of Aqua Fría, after the wells have run dry and anyone with any sense has fled. What we’re left with is a cast of outliers and iconoclasts. In the absence of water, most of them have resorted to drinking whiskey, (and eventually horse blood), refusing to leave town in hopes of finding some sort of treasure. Dominating most of the novel is the gang leader Red. A ridiculously fast draw who is cunning, cruel, and captivating as he rises to his highest station while everything around him turns to dust and dies. Red’s horse also instantly makes an impression — mostly due to the fact that Red shoots it in the head when it is introduced and the thing keeps on walking and riding despite having a third eye punched in the middle of its skull.
The Ranger is another man strangely thriving from the corpse that’s become of Aqua Fría. He’s a lawman with some strange ideas about guns, making his way closer to Red and closure on some long percolating grudge between the two. He’s a classic western hero: a lawman with a sense of honor that goes beyond the laws of man. The Ranger’s conviction gets tested and the longer we’re with him the more we see the peculiarities that drive him.
Most of the other denizens of Pig Iron also borrow from familiar western archetypes, but each is lent a distinct bent to their mold. The atheist preacher still spitting sermons at his lunatic, sun-drowned congregation is an easy favorite who gets some of the best lines. Red’s gang includes an expected collection of rogues and weirdos, but the sycophant Egg sticks out as a wonderfully fucked up diamond in a drift mine full of them. His tenderness towards a camel spider he’s turned into a sort of pet and maybe even colleague hits unexpectedly poignant notes.
Keaton excels at dialogue in this novel. It’s stylized, but never gets so in love with the sound of its own voice that it wanders past the point of suspended disbelief to stick out as artifice or shoddy prop. No one in the real world really talks like this, sure, but it is the way people remember talking when they recount stories. Like the rest of Pig Iron, it’s writ large and splayed widescreen panoramic, because myths have to be in order to sink deep down into the folds of our brains and the nooks of our souls.
Every few years, we get warned that the western is going to lift its bony ass out from the grave of popular imagination and claw its way back through thick dark dirt to the sunny surface of cultural relevance. We’re told that it’s going to surface fully intact, both six shooters snarling; that it will again be a genre concerned primarily with whiskey, the shaky nature of justice, and morality. And let’s not forget the expansion of the American Empire at the cost of its native people, and the beautiful land taken from them, along with a piece from each soul of the people who came here and stole it all.
The western is supposed to do the Lazarus shuffle out of its crypt to do all of that and usually do it in reverse order. But mostly we’re told that the western is going to come back because it’s the one genre best designed to grapple with that wonderfully rich horror that lies at the heart of the concept of “the frontier.”
noun fron·tier \ˌfrən-ˈtir, ˈfrən-ˌ, frän-ˈ, ˈfrän-ˌ\
Some of my favorite definitions of the word include:
- A region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory
- A line of division between different or opposed things
- The farthermost limits of knowledge or achievement in a particular subject
All three definitions apply to his book, but I think Pig Iron touches most profoundly on the final one.
What are the limits of the western? What defines these particular myths? What can be subverted and deconstructed only to be reformed even clearer and stronger? I don’t know if Keaton answers these questions directly, but he certainly provokes them.
I don’t know where Keaton will go next. His themes revolve around the hollowness of authority and the unreliability of reality itself — the highest authority. Everything implausible, impossible or just nightmarish that happens in his books is just an exploration of what lies beyond what we deem reality; in other words beyond the frontier. Which means maybe the rest of his books are really just westerns too? Perhaps a lot of other books are too. They keep saying the western is coming back. Keaton makes me ask, who says it’s been gone?