David Rio’s book attempts to shed light on the ever emergent world of ‘Western’ fiction, claiming to focus on “contemporary Nevada fiction as one of the most proving and intense literary explorations of the American West as a whole” (rear cover). Indeed, Rio’s analysis of texts set over the last four decades is nothing short of ambitious in its range and scope, linking the discussion of texts according to themes commonly associated with the ‘West’ as genre. Ranging from Basque immigrants to nuclear waste, the book engages with established depictions of the area through referencing non-Nevadans Hunter S Thompson and Joan Didion as well as less known Nevadan writers such as Frank Bergon and Robert Laxalt. Whilst positing new and dynamic readings, Rio remains sensitive to his reader’s expectations, throwing Las Vegas and Reno’s seedy underbelly in for good measure, producing the first book length study of its kind.
Citing Frederick Turner’s ‘frontier thesis’ and its traditional views of the Wild West, Rio’s book turns its attention to the shift away from such mythology and references the growing presence of western writing as reflective of the increased cultural complexity present in contemporary fiction. This is clearly demonstrated by his reference to Western writers who have already achieved international success such as Amy Tan, Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy whom he believes have managed to strike the balance between mythical representation and ethnic ‘authenticity’. Structured across four main chapters ranging from ‘Sin State’, and ‘the Feminized West’ to ‘The Environmental West’, Rio’s book comprehensively covers myth, realism and variegated types of modern ‘Wests’ before reaching the conclusion that “present day Nevada fiction… [emphasises] a realistic portrait of the past” (244) establishing a complexity of space and place in literature.
New Literary Portraits of the American West does indeed pay a great deal of attention to these myths, devoting a large portion of the Introduction and first chapter to recognising and deciphering the established versions of the western genre. In doing so, Rio begins to draw on critical approaches to American literature, citing the endless pursuit of “mobility, freedom and individual heroes” (24) as being inextricably linked to some of the most modern portraits of the West. Rio’s focus then shifts away from examining what he calls “a code” of honour and manly virtues to a more all encompassing discussion of the popularity of mobster identities in Vegas and Reno and the unashamedly silent voices of women of the cowboy genre. He also writes a great deal about the importance of environmental factors in the region’s violent representation in landscapes and on the bodies of Westerners. It is clear the book’s emphasis on the concepts of region and place, connecting landscape to literature in a ‘transnational’ manner, seeks to highlight not only gendered experiences but also those of ethnicity, and in doing so allows for recognition of changing attitudes and consciousness in postfrontier texts to produce a comprehensively holistic reading.
Yet, the Old western fiction of Willa Cather and John Steinbeck is somewhat skimmed over, and instead, Rio’s evaluation seems to focus more specifically on the modern anti heroes – the mobs, gangs, Basque identities and other immigrant identities contained therein. The artificiality of the myth he is keen to highlight for its nationalistic dimensions and ecocritical implications, is seemingly disposed of in favour of a rather simplistic, aim; searching for ‘truth’ in the literature analysed. Whilst recognising the clear relevance of a more contemporary approach adopted in New Literary Portraits of the American West it is a shame to see some areas rejected in the wake of addressing only the literature of Nevada.
Overall however, New Literary Portraits of the American West is a very enjoyable and highly insightful read. Rio’s scope and range of analysis and textual evaluation is nothing short of impressive, and this text will most likely serve as a highly useful resource for any student or scholar wishing to enter into the field of Western literature. Despite its limitations, it is a comprehensive and thoroughly engaging, even at times exciting (who doesn’t enjoy reading about mobsters) read.