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New Literary Portraits of the American West

Contemporary Nevada Fiction

David Rio

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.
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1. The American West Revisited: Place, Myth, and Realism in New Western Fiction

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1.  The American West Revisited: Place, Myth, and Realism in New Western Fiction

West is a country in the mind, and so eternal.

(Archibald MacLeish, “Sweet Land of Liberty”)

Together with Yi-Fu Tuan’s seminal Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (1977), one of the first major contemporary attempts to vindicate place as a fundamental critical category was Leonard Lutwack’s The Role of Place in Literature (1984). In this book Lutwack formulates an over-all theory of place in literature, emphasizing the role of images and metaphors of place in literary works. Particularly interesting is his view of the basic factors involved in the interaction between people and place: “The relation of people to land is finally a product of the interaction of three factors: the basic physical nature of the environment, the preconceptions with which it is approached by its inhabitants, and the changes man makes in it” (142). Certainly, these three elements are relevant to analyze the relation between people and place in the American West and its literary representation. Nevertheless, possibly the most important factor is that of the preconceptions of place, a fundamental concept when applied to the American West. In fact, a similar concept has been used by Barry Lopez, one of the leading western nature writers. Lopez has resorted to the term “false geographies” to refer to a series of romantic preconceptions by means of which the “essential wildness” and “almost incomprehensible depth and complexity” of the American landscape...

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