The gentleman comes from the East Coast to make his fortune. When the train lets him off in a dusty Wyoming town, he encounters an array of cowpunchers, cardsharks, and ne’er-do-wells, whose coarse manners shock and intrigue him. At the saloon, he’s treated to their opinions on the local women, as well as one man’s boast that he never forgets a face—so long as that face is white. A game of cards nearly turns into a shootout when one man calls the newcomer a “son-of-a—,” causing him to lay his pistol on the table and utter what will become the story’s catchphrase: “When you call me that, smile.”
So begins Owen Wister’s The Virginian, considered by some to be the first Western novel. The Virginian doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore, but its basic tropes are still what many readers think of when they picture a Western: a bunch of white men shooting at one another, or at Indigenous people, who enter the story as faceless antagonists if they enter it at all.
But the past several years have seen the rise of a different kind of Western novel. The genre has been evolving for some time, with TV shows like Deadwood and films like No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water offering a twist on the usual formula. And recently, a number of authors have upended it further, in the process sweeping away some of its most calcified myths.