Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Western Is Not Dead, Just Updated

There was a time when Westerns were wildly popular. Novels about life in the Old West, films about the cowboys and Indians, and even television shows set in the west were all the rage. You couldn't turn around without bumping into one.

The genre faded, and you rarely see a Western novel in the book store or hitting the best seller list. It's outdated, you might hear a publisher say. No one does Westerns any more. That's so 1950s.

Maybe the genre isn't quite dead. Maybe it's undergone a slight modification, a face-lift if you will.

The Wild West is alive and well and it's living on the south side of Chicago.

A woman out visiting relatives with her mother, her son, and a couple of unnamed male companions was shot in a drive-by the other day. Chances are it was her companions who were targeted, but the average gunslinger isn't taking the time to aim. Two innocent women were killed in the exchange, but they were not the only ones to die that weekend. Every Monday we are presented with a list that tallies the dead and injured, the butcher's bill of gang members and those unfortunate enough to be nearby when the shots rang out.

Waiting for the posse to ride into Englewood

The format of the typical Western is rather straightforward. There is a good guy trying to tame the town by stopping by the bad guys from taking over and doing all the things that are illegal and uncivilized. How easy would it be for a writer to use that format and change the characters from cowboys in white hats to ordinary homeowners in Chicago's Englewood community? Are those folks not asking for the same thing as the townspeople of the Old West asked when they demanded that a sheriff be installed to bring law and order?

The stories of the Old West, such as those written by Zane Grey, were all about the conquering of savagery. Riders of the Purple Sage could be re-written today and the setting changed to the west side of Chicago and the genre would be resurrected. Of course no one would call it a Western. It would become urban fiction, but it would be little more than a cosmetic change.

You want cowboys? How about setting a novel in the Back of the Yards, a tough Chicago neighborhood that got its name from its location, behind the Chicago stockyards. They had plenty of cowboys on hand in those days. Now there's plenty of gangsters shooting guns at each other. Not unlike rival thugs in your average Western, shooting at each other to get rid of the competition so that one gang could reign supreme in the lawless department.

Westerns play out every weekend in some parts of Chicago, not unlike the violence of the Old West played out while people in civilized cities sat safely in their parlors or sat on their front porches reading about the violence. The characters don't ride horses any more, but they still ride out in search of rivals.

And like the innocent characters in a Western novel, the residents of Chicago's depressed communities are sitting around waiting for the posse to show up, or some new sheriff or anyone capable of enforcing the law so that they can enjoy the peace of civilization.

The Western is not dead. It's alive and well and disguised as urban literature. There are stories to be told, if anyone cares to sit down and do some writing. Just copy the style of the once popular genre, changing the key ingredients to provide the updating that brings an old story into the modern context.

Don't forget to include the law enforcement component that will seem like pure fiction to the people who are living with the violence. They're still waiting for the posse to come riding into town to restore order.

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