||A Review of: Lightning
by Peter Yan
One distinctive mark of the Western genre is its brutal violence.
Life is worth little more than tobacco spit in this literary world
where power resides in the barrel of a gun and where lawless cowboys
kill time between killing time by stealing, whoring, raping, drinking,
gambling and lynching. In Fred Stenson's Lightning, the sequel to
his Giller nominated The Trade, the violence is still there-one
character has her face slashed in half and lives-but tamed in order
for Stenson to tell his Canadian Western tale like a morality play.
The novel begins in Dillon, Montana in 1881, where the main character,
cowboy Doc Windham, a down and out 41-year-old Texan, talks himself
and his friends into a job herding cattle from Montana to Cochrane,
Alberta. This trek is possible because of the new emerging economy
in the West, as the fur trade gives way to open range ranching,
made possible by the abundance of wild grasslands replenished after
the death of the buffaloes and Comanche Indians.
Along this long trail ride north, Doc Windham, our Everyman, is
stalked by death in the form of a young cowboy-in-training named
Dwight and a vicious murderer named Ivan Overcross seeking revenge
on Doc for blowing part of his head off. Like Everyman, Doc is
deserted by his fellowship of cowboys, wins and loses beautiful
women, forces himself and Dwight to confession, and finds salvation
in his Mason religion and his good deed of rehabilitating an alcoholic
For two-thirds of the novel, Stenson alternates the narrative between
Doc Windham's life in 1881 and his life 15 years earlier in 1866.
What is revealed in this juxtaposition of Doc Windham's past and
present is that the circle of life is not as simple as the Disney
films have us believe; life, as Doc Windham lives it, is more like
a yin and yang circle, where his past experiences-his love for a
billiard hustler named Pearl, the hanging of his Uncle Jack, and
his initiation into the Mason religion-are linked to his present
directly and dialectically, conversely and inversely. Regrettably,
West does not meet East for long, as Stenson stops alternating the
storylines when the herd hits Canada.
The Canadian West is much tamer than the American West. Guns and
liquor are controlled, bordellos do not exist, and the Mounties
uphold the law. In fact, most of the novel is tame: the gambling
is not poker but billiards and bowling; the whores are charitable
and loving, and some cowboys and businessmen are not philistines
but literate readers. Doc Windham, for instance, loves to read,
writes letters, cites Latin, takes in a lecture on phrenology, goes
to a play, broods on the philosophy of Seneca, Dickens's Great
Expectations and the poetry of Walt Whitman. Even Doc's nemesis,
the killer Overcross, acts and sings opera, however poorly. This
is also a very politically correct western, as Doc Windham, like
today's vaunted sensitive male, urges one drunken cowboy to go on
sobriety, welcomes another to have a good cry, and sets aside his
homophobia, to lie naked on top of another man to revive him from
his frozen state. The love scenes are soft and bereft of male
chauvinism as Doc Windham always awaits his lover's directions.
Like Jack London, Stenson can turn the setting into a character,
with his spare Hemingwayesque prose. His description of the cattle
exodus to Canada and of the natural elements is compelling, powerful
"Though the sun has been sliding down the south sky for months,
the season has always been summer. Now, like a magician's trick,
it is morning and the mountains have turned white. All that day,
you ride the brown hills full of sadness, your heart a hole that
the wind blows through.
Summer's leaving is every other kind of loss combined. You
know the seasons are a cycle, but there is no consolation
in that. It only stretches misery ahead of itself; invents
the feeling called dread. As for winter, what good can be
said about a season when the air, the friend that keeps you
alive, turns on you with a dagger?"
With lines like that, one hopes that Stenson's next work is a
collection of poetry.
Clearly, Stenson has taken risks in this novel. His risks mostly
succeed, failing only when he tries too hard to avoid typecasting
his cowboy hero, Doc Windham. When Doc Windham names literary works,
like someone name dropping at a party, and makes literary statements
and literary criticism, especially in his explanation of a Whitman
poem about evil to his killer, Stenson's cowboys have ventured too
far out of their range-no longer characters but mouthpieces for the
author's ideas. But this is a quibble. Known for his research and
attention to historical detail, Stenson has written a valuable work
of historical fiction, teaching the public through his stories more
about Canadian history than history books.