“Moral Ambiguity” often gets thrown around as a plus in great novels, especially in the modern climate (or reflecting on the height of the McCarthy era when Oakley Hall wrote this book). The “good guys” have dark secrets, the “bad guys” love their moms, and probably have some good reasons for being bad besides. Maybe there’s no good or bad guys at all. Warlock does not go this route. It does not take the heroic gunman of western lore and make him a pedophile or smugly make the puerile point that he is just as bad as the villains. Instead, its thesis is that the task of the hero is basically impossible, that justified violence is impossible. The book serves as both an indictment of vigilantism as well as the death penalty. Maybe some people deserve to die, but in the absence of some heavenly father, no one can ever be sure. There is no earthly or final judgement. And maybe you have no choice but to kill someone set on killing you, but the case may be this just leads to more people you have to kill or more people being killed.
This is not just a novel of ideas. It’s a great story too. The rapidly developing frontier-mining town of Warlock, sick of its deputies being run out of town and with the delay in receiving a town patent to legitimize itself, hires renowned gunman Clay Blaisedell to establish order and run out the murderous cowboys who threaten town. Blaisdell is a stand-in for Wyatt Earp and the inciting event plays out like the story of Tombstone Arizona and the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, before rapidly diverging from the myth. It examines the ideas of Hero and Villain and the American myth/creation story of the west. It simultaneously asks why Americans need heroes while pointing out how cynically they discard those very same. The setup takes slightly too long to get going and the writing overall is a bit wooden, but
The cast of the novel is not oblivious to the greater, existential themes playing out around them. They’re utterly aware and stagger towards the book’s inevitable conclusion and play out their designated roles, because they have no other options or because they are forced to by the hero-worshipping society surrounding them. Thomas Pynchon calls this book a “novel of abysses” and this a perfect description. The cast is staring into each of their own personal abysses. The town itself seems almost like a literal abyss, eternally dusty and partially surrounded by mountains. The reader is considering his or her own abyss in such an effective way as I have never seen before. I feel like typically you can empathize with a character’s mistakes but wish they had done differently, feel bad for the decisions that doom them, wishing they had done otherwise. Basically the tragic flaw exerting itself. This is not so with Warlock. There really were no outs. No good decisions. Just pointless violence and no way to stop it. And this isn’t just the town of Warlock, it’s life, all violence, all towns.
This feeling is summed up by the sometimes-narrator and general store owner Henry Holmes Goodpasture:
“I feel drained by an over-violent purge to my emotions, that has taken from me part of my manhood, or my humanity. I feel scraped raw in some inner and most precious part. The earth is an ugly place, senseless, brutal, cruel, and ruthlessly bent only upon the destruction of men’s souls. The God of the Old Testament rules a world not worth His trouble, and He is more violent, more jealous, more terrible with the years. We are only those poor, bare, forked animals Lear saw upon his dismal heath, in pursuit of death, pursued by death.”
Goodpasture appeals to a violent God, but strange for both a Western and a novel written in the 50’s, most of the characters, and especially the primary POV character (John Gannon), are atheists. With no God to appeal to, some try to play up The Law as a solution worthy of worship. Or unions, democracy, civilization. But none of them really believe it for long. In fact, the book overall has an incredibly detached and reflective feel to it. It seems as if all the characters are philosophers. It works though.
Warlock does not offer a solution, or an answer. It flirts with the idea of love as the answer, and ends with a bewildering and ill-advised X-years later epilogue. Towards the end, on of the more memorable side characters, one-legged, alcoholic Judge Holloway, offers us this opinion:
“Yes, learn your lessons as they come your way,” the judge said. “And when you have learned them all they can stick red-hot pokers in your wife and babies and you will only laugh to see it. Because you will know by then that people don’t matter a damn. Men are like corn growing. The sun burns them up and the rain washes them out and the winter freezes them, and the cavalry tramps them down, but somehow they keep growing. And none of it matters a damn so long as the whisky holds out.”