JE: With so much discussion around here recently about Cheever and Updike and Yates, I thought I’d venture past the suburbs today for a quick post about a writer out west whom I greatly admire for his warmth and humor, and his distinctly western brand of eccentricity: Mr. Tim Sandlin of Wyoming. This morning, attempting to govern the chaos of books ever threatening to overwhelm my fortress of solitude, I ran across Sandlin’s Western Swing among the stacks. Though it has been at least four years since I read Western Swing, I remember the novel in vivid detail. This is rare for me, a reader who almost invariably must revisit a work in order to wax with any detail on its charms.
As its title suggests, Western Swing is a bit like a country song in the form of a novel. Tenacious characters losing wives and kids, haunting cowboy bars looking for love, fucking and fighting their way toward catharsis. Everything about the novel, from its unhurried tempo to its twangy cadence to its thematic concerns of broken love, domestic unrest, and dogged perseverance, embodies the spirit of classic country music. Even the humor is wounded and unsentimental. You can hear the pedal steels and smell the leather, feel the reckless possibilities of canned beer pumping through your veins as the band strikes up New San Antonio Rose, and the girl at the end of the bar sneaks a sidelong glance at you through a curl of blue smoke.
It is no small wonder that Sandlin’s hard-knock characters feel so lived in. On his fortieth birthday, Sandlin himself was washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant and living in a tent in the Wyoming backwoods. At least that’s how the legend goes. For my money, this is the sort rugged balls-to-the-wall individualism and privation that teaches pathos where an MFA program could never hope to.
Sandlin is deceptively fun reading in the manner of, say, Charles Portis–offbeat and charming and infused with great quantities of voice. But unlike Portis, Sandlin habitually dares to get dangerous. He plumbs the emotional depths where Portis glides across the surface. Sandlin has pathos. Western Swing ooozes it, right down to the last wavering steel guitar note. And pathos, more than anything else, is what makes writing resonate in JE’s world.