New Literary Portraits of the American West

Contemporary Nevada Fiction

by David Rio (Author)
©2014 Monographs 302 Pages


This book focuses on contemporary Nevada fiction as one of the most probing and intense literary explorations of the American West as a whole. Recent fictional representations of Nevada possess a revelatory value in relation to the whole West because they encompass some of the most common thematic trends in contemporary western writing. Actually, the thematic maturation of Nevada fiction over the last four decades often parallels the evolution of postfrontier writing, in particular, its growing departure from the overused topics and images of the formula western. Nevada fiction also possesses some unique and distinctive themes, such as its depiction of Basque immigrants, its emphasis on nuclear testing and nuclear waste, and its portrait of such peculiar cities as Reno and Las Vegas. This study discusses contemporary writing set in Nevada both by Nevadans (Robert Laxalt, Frank Bergon, Willy Vlautin, Phyllis Barber, Claire Vaye Watkins…) and by non-resident authors (Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Larry McMurtry…), drawing new attention to a remarkable literature that has been too often neglected in discussions of the American West.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The American West Revisited: Place, Myth, and Realism in New Western Fiction
  • 2. The Silver State vs the Sin State: Nevada and its Fictional Portraits
  • 3. Contemporary Trends in Nevada Fiction
  • i. Reinterpreting the Wild West
  • ii. A Multicultural and Feminized West
  • iii. The Environmental West
  • iv. The New Western City
  • 4. Conclusions
  • Works Cited
  • Index


Most of the research for the present volume has been carried out in Nevada, mainly at the University of Nevada, Reno. My first visits to this state in the mid-1990s provided me with the opportunity to interview some of the most acclaimed authors of contemporary Nevada fiction, such as Robert Laxalt, Frank Bergon, and Monique Urza. In the early 2000s I expanded the scope of my research, initially devoted almost exclusively to Basque American authors, to deal with contemporary Nevada fiction at large. Since then I have conducted interviews with other writers of fiction set in Nevada, for example, Californian Richard Stookey, Phyllis Barber, H. Lee Barnes, and Felicia Campbell, and also with prominent scholars in the field of western literary criticism, such as Richard W. Etulain, David Fenimore, María Herrera-Sobek, Neil Campbell, and Cheryll Glotfelty, to name just a few. All of them provided me with helpful advice and valuable feedback. My gratitude extends to other scholars who contributed significantly to the progress of my research while in Nevada, such as William Douglass (founder of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, and its director until 2000) and Joseba Zulaika, and to many other people who offered me their friendship and hospitality in Reno and Las Vegas, particularly Rhina Guidos, Mariajo Rodríguez, and Hellen Quan-Lopez.

Special thanks are also due to those institutions that supported my research during all these years. In fact, the book was completed under the auspices of the research group REWEST (code: IT 608–13), funded by the Basque Government (Dpto. de Educación, Universidades e Investigación/ Hezkuntza, Unibertsitate eta Ikerketa Saila), and the University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU (UFI 11/06). The research carried out for the writing of this book was also funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (code: FFI 2011–23598) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

I would also like to express my gratitude to my colleagues in the Department of English and German Philology and Translation and Interpretation at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) for ← 9 | 10 → their invaluable support and inspiration. In particular, I am very much indebted to the late Federico Eguíluz and Eterio Pajares, and also to Eva Delgado, María Pilar García, Margarita Giménez, Waltraud Kirste, Raquel Merino, and José Miguel Santamaría. Of course, my fellow researchers in the REWEST group, both at the University of the Basque Country, UPV/EHU (Mercedes Albert, Maite Aperribay, Ángel Chaparro, Maja Daniel, Amaia Ibarraran, Mª Felisa López, Haritz Monreal, Raúl Montero, and Martin Simonson) or in other universities (Jesús Ángel González, Juan Ignacio Guijarro, Aitor Ibarrola, and Monika Madinabeitia) also deserve a very special mention. Thanks also to my students at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) for their remarkable and challenging responses to western American literature readings.

Finally, my deepest gratitude should go to those who never read the volume, but who were always there, putting up with my absences and ready to offer encouragement, rest, and good humor when needed. Thanks a lot to my friends, both at home and abroad, and above all, to my extended family, especially to my father (our eternal sheltering rock) and my mother (her memory will be always a lasting example for all of us), my brother, my nephew, my niece, and my relatives-in-law. And the greatest recognition should go by all means to Mati, Paula, and Ibai. ← 10 | 11 →


Today Nevada is well-known – but not known well. Its literary heritage, for example, is virtually incognita.

(Cheryll Glotfelty, “Preface” in Literary Nevada)

Nevada is no different from the rest of the West, where regional writing is fast becoming national literature.

(Ann Ronald, “Nevada” in Updating the Literary West)

The present work focuses on contemporary Nevada fiction as one of the most probing and intense literary explorations of the American West as a whole. In fact, the new prominence of Nevada fiction symbolizes the increasing recognition achieved by western writing in American literature since the end of the 1960s. This new significance of the literature of the American West has put an end to traditional misleading and stereotyped views that used to identify western writing almost exclusively with “formula westerns” and Hollywood horse operas. As Thomas Lyon stated in 1999, “until quite recently, the last thirty years or so, this ‘higher’ or more serious kind of western literature […] was hardly given scholarly and historical attention even as a regional voice, so overwhelming was the literary presence of the first, projective West” (“Introduction” 2–3).

The increasing importance achieved by western writing is closely related to the rise of revisionist reinterpretations of the history the American West, in particular, of Frederick Turner’s popular “frontier thesis” and traditional views of the Wild West. Thus, in the last four decades major western writers and scholars have revealed the most negative aspects of frontier mythology, such as its deep ethnocentric implications, its legitimization of violence, and its overemphasis on individualistic male cultural models. Besides, the growing presence of western writing in the American literary stream is also linked to the general expansion of environmental awareness in the United States and to the increasing attention being paid to the ethnic and cultural complexity of the New ← 11 | 12 → West. Western American literature may have lost an important part of its mythic dimensions popularized through Hollywood films, but it has maintained its appeal both for American and non-American audiences, and the international success of writers such as Cormac McCarthy, Wallace Stegner, Annie Proulx, Louise Erdrich, and Amy Tan, to name just five well-known contemporary authors, testifies to the globalization of the literary West.

This study of contemporary Nevada fiction vindicates place and region as fundamental analytical categories with which to explore western writing. Certainly, place and region have usually been neglected as critical categories in mainstream American literary studies, with few exceptions, mainly in the field of southern literature. Although regionalism has long figured in American literary study (Wells 203–204) and the evocation of “a spirit of place” may be regarded as a central factor in American literature (Kowalewski, “Contemporary Regionalism” 7), the term “regional literature” has often retained a series of negative connotations and restrictions, often suggesting mere local-color writing and literature of regional interest only. Even as late as 1988 The Columbia Literary History of the United States included an essay entitled “Regionalism: A Diminished Thing,” where James Cox rendered regionalism “a subordinate order of realism” (767). Some authors have even emphasized the lack of proper vocabulary to address some issues related to region and place. For example, Gary Snyder has observed that “we have the terms enculturation and acculturation, but nothing to describe the process of becoming placed or re-placed” (27). However, new directions of literary discourse, in particular, after the publication of such relevant titles in the 1990s as American Women Regionalists, 1850–1910. A Norton Anthology (Eds. Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse) and Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field (Ed. David Jordan), have started to acknowledge the fundamental role of place and region in the critical realm. As Jeremy Wells has noted, “region, with its insistence upon the importance of locality to reconfigure the geographies of literary study, may have become the central complicating concept of the current decade” (203). Similarly, Charles L. Crow has argued that “it is difficult to understand the large issues of American culture and literature, […] without understanding the literature of regions” (2). The increasing visibility of region as an ← 12 | 13 → analytical category in literary criticism is also exemplified by the 2005 special issue of the journal American Literature (Vol. 77, No. 1, edited by Houston A. Baker, Jr.) significantly entitled Erasing the Commas: RaceGenderClassSexualityRegion. The renaissance of regional writing and criticism may be seen as a reaction against an increasingly global and homogenizing world. As Michael Kowalewski, for example, reminds us, “large numbers of Americans feel less tied to and less aware of the places in which they live” (“Contemporary Regionalism” 8), inhabiting a postmodern man-made landscape that resembles what James Howard Kunstler has defined as “the geography of nowhere” in his remarkable study The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (1993). The reconciliation of these two contradictory cultural attitudes may be reached through an approach to regionalism that goes beyond traditional geographical limits and historical barriers. Vindicating the role of region in literary studies should not be an obstacle to taking regionalism transnational, exploring regional writing and, in particular western literature, in an international context. In fact, when dealing with the American West it is worth moving beyond the regional and even the national imaginary, reconciling the local and the global through an “unbounded regionalism” (Kollin, “The Global West” 517–522) or what Kenneth Frampton and others have called a “critical regionalism” (see, for example, Frampton’s essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” and Douglas Reichert Powell’s Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape). As Krista Comer has stated, “a major task faced by scholars of the regional today is to reckon with and displace the centrality of the nation-state in accounts of US cultural production” (“Taking Feminism and Regionalism toward the Third Wave” 113–114). Similarly, Neil Campbell has claimed that “to examine the West in the twenty-first century is to think of it as always already transnational, a more routed and complex rendition, a traveling concept whose meanings move between cultures, crossing, bridging, and intruding simultaneously” (Rhizomatic 4). The prominence of “unbounded regionalism” in the literary field today has also served to consolidate the use of terms such as “postwestern” or “postregionalism” when studying contemporary western American culture. The term “postwestern,” whose origins date back to film studies in the early 1970s (see Campbell, Post-Westerns 3), was ← 13 | 14 → defined by Susan Kollin in 2007 as a critical approach that rejects a “narrowly conceived regionalism” and, specifically, a view of the West as a “predetermined entity with static borders and boundaries” (“Postwestern Studies Dead or Alive” xiii). More recently, Krista Comer has described “postwestern” as “the cultural space and critical practice involving the crossings, flows, transnational circulations, of a regionalism not-bounded” (“Introduction: Assessing the Postwestern” 11). The concept of “postregionalism” has been used to approach a West consisting of “city-regions” like Las Vegas where “the electronic and transportation networks, the virtual technologies, and the flow of images from the entertainment industry sector compose a postregional grid” (Tatum 13). It is true that both terms, “postwestern” and “postregionalism,” have sometimes been used as synonyms, but, as Krista Comer has pointed out, there are some relevant differences between both concepts, mainly due to the focus of “postregionalism” on “contemporary restructurings between space and power,” its “concern for the vulnerable and the Other,” and its “broadly deterritorializated notion of subjects in place” where “deterritorialization is not, by default, a cause for celebration” (“Introduction: Assessing the Postwestern” 12).

Although the present volume will emphasize the concepts of region and place, with a particular attention to the connection between landscape and writing in contemporary Nevada fiction, it will also resort to other relevant critical categories such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, and religion. These categories have become extremely useful in the last few decades to reveal significant issues of contemporary western writing and to bring attention to neglected aspects of the West, particularly related to the presence and influence of ethnic minorities and women. Certainly, the increasing emphasis on transnational and postnational critical analysis and the present postracial, postfeminist, and neoliberal political panorama may have diminished the influence of these critical categories in US western studies (Comer, “Introduction: Assessing the Postwestern” 5). However, these stances, as exemplified by indigenous studies, feminist theory, or Chicano studies, are still very valuable critical tools in our field. The emphasis on the transnational dimension of particular works should not be an obstacle to simultaneously exploring their ethnic aspects or their representation of gender. For example, the combination of a transnational perspective with an ethnic approach may ← 14 | 15 → be very useful when applied to those books dealing with some immigrant groups and set partially or entirely in the American West. Logically, this study will also focus on the interaction between myth and history in recent Nevada fiction, discussing the changes in consciousness and attitude in modern reassessments of American expansion into the West and the problematic legacy of the western myth in the postfrontier mind. As Richard White has pointed out, “the mythic West imagined by Americans has shaped the West of history just as the West of history has helped create the West Americans have imagined. The two cannot be neatly severed” (616).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
American literature Postfrontier writing Basque immigrant Nuclear testing
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 302 pp.

Biographical notes

David Rio (Author)

David Rio is Professor of American Literature at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Vitoria-Gasteiz, where he also coordinates a research group (REWEST) specialized in the literature of the American West. He is the author of El proceso de la violencia en la narrativa de Robert Penn Warren (1995) and Robert Laxalt: The Voice of the Basques in American Literature (2007), and the co-editor of several volumes on contemporary western American literature.


Title: New Literary Portraits of the American West
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302 pages