Novel: Warlock by Oakley Hall
Amy Tan called him a “master craftsman of the story” with his dialogue “perfectly pitched”. Michael Chabon describes Hall as “a writer whose work enriched American literature”. Thomas Pynchon and the late Richard Farina started a “micro-cult” around his work when they were students at Cornell. Yet, the name Oakley Hall doesn’t resonate with 21st century readers as it should. The longtime director of UC Irvine’s Masters program in creative writing and co-founder of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hall made tremendous contributions to the creative writing community through his actions as well as his provocative writing.
In writing this post to honor Hall, I considered his powerful neo-noir novel, So Many Doors, since it is one of my favorite noirs, but decided to briefly write about his most famous work, Warlock since that book is not as widely read as it probably should be, even in the 21st century. When I first read Warlock, I thought of it as a modernist deconstruction of the western stories and the entire mythos of the American wild west. Usually deconstruction is associated with postmodernism, that elusive and controversial -ism that divides opinions and evades easy definitions. But Warlock, to me, fits more into a modernist deconstruction as I see it, for there is an abstract truth in Warlock, but it’s one seen through the lens of every individual’s perceptions and experiences. It’s not absolutely relative but relative to embodied experience.
Published in 1958, the novel begins as a fictional retelling of the famous shootout at the OK Corral but achieves something much greater. Most people probably know that term, “shootout at the OK corral”, but many probably don’t remember the story behind the phrase that lives on in cultural memory. Thomas Pynchon described in mythic terms: “Tombstone, Arizona, during the 1880’s is, in ways, our national Camelot: a never-never land where American virtues are embodied in the Earps, and the opposite evils in the Clanton gang; where the confrontation at the OK Corral takes on some of the dry purity of the Arthurian joust. Oakley Hall, in his very fine novel Warlock has restored to the myth of Tombstone its full, mortal, blooded humanity.” The term “mortal, blooded humanity” is appropriate as Hall goes beyond the standard conventions of the Western story and breaks it apart only to rebuild it into something familiar yet also unknown. It tears down conventional views and replaces them with something more profound. How this story unfolds forces the reader to question our own views about what we assume of the gunslinger archetype among others. How are our own beliefs built upon myths that differ from reality? How does a narrative change over time and re-tellings to achieve that mythic status? Warlock challenges us to re-imagine what the west would really have been like. Not the easy white hat vs black hat paradigm that throwaway media sets up but instead invokes the complexity of living in that era, rife with harsh realities and tough choices laid bare for us to learn from.