Livingston came out for one of its own Thursday night.
Richard S. Wheeler, for my money our best living Western writer, had a new novel, “Anything Goes,” to offer, and an overflow crowd of friends, colleagues and admirers filled the upstairs reading room at Elk River Books to hear from him.
Elk River co-owner Marc Beaudin noted that this was Wheeler’s 71st novel, a take-your-breath-away total by any measure but also one surely too small. When you include those written under other names, such as Wheeler’s Axel Brand mystery novels, the total pushes 80, or beyond.
That the 80-year-old Wheeler’s first title didn’t appear until he was in his 40s, after a career in newspaper journalism and as a book editor … well, the output becomes almost unfathomable.
The best part: His work has been consistently top-drawer for all that time, and he has the acclaim to prove it. He’s an Owen Wister Award winner for lifetime achievement. His books, mostly in the genre of Westerns but too broadly drawn and imagined to be jammed into a narrow category, have won six Spur Awards. The man is the real deal.
So it was that Thursday night seemed like a rare privilege, a chance to see and hear from a master craftsman in his twilight. It became something more than that toward the end of the evening, as Wheeler entertained questions from the gathering. Ever understated, he noted that he wasn’t writing anymore.
If that’s true, he gave us not only a new book Thursday but also a valedictory. We’ll not see the likes of him again. (Actually, we will. Such is Wheeler’s output that while he may not be actively writing today, he has enough productive yesterdays that we’ll see another new book, a Western called “Easy Pickings,” in May.)
So, then, let us praise Richard S. Wheeler, who was never the next big thing, whose work has too many genre elements to be celebrated by the literary snobs (read: he writes stories that entertain, if you can imagine the horror), and whose tools were not incomprehensibly airbrushed sentences but rather the hardiest, most precise words and a nose for research that allowed him to faithfully render any era.
It seems almost a bonus that he is a gentleman of uncommon grace and generosity, and one whose sense of self is rooted in a healthy place. He noted Thursday night that he hasn’t drawn an employment check in about four decades, relying instead on his boundless imagination and his work ethic to turn out new work and land yet another publishing contract.
“Never very big,” he said, “but enough to keep me going.” Privately, he has counseled younger writers to keep their debt low, their manner of living modest and their keyboards warm. It’s damned good advice.
For the prospective writer, or anyone who wants to live a life of proportion, there’s much more wisdom in Wheeler’s memoir of a literary life, “An Accidental Novelist.” He learned early that he could only write as well as he could, that the other factors that make a book go aren’t easily quantified or replicated.
Books for which he held great hope sometimes tanked. Those that seemed middling efforts sometimes soared. And the business of publishing, so peculiar and insular, offered him no end of delight and disgust. Could you imagine writing a story set in the American West and then receiving the book, only to see African Cape buffalo stampeding across the cover?
You don’t have to. Wheeler has lived it, survived it, and come to learn that there are more important things.
In “An Accidental Novelist,” he leaves us this as a final paragraph:
“My death is not far away now. I do not know what lies beyond the grave, if anything. So I have invented my own eternity. In my blue heaven, only love is eternal. Love carries us into the life to come, beyond the beyond. When we love someone, we vest that person with eternity. We fashion our heaven out of our earthly life, and populate it with the ones we have loved. The person who has loved only himself will have only a bare room. But I am among the fortunate, for I have loved deeply and well, and all my beloved ones will be with me, family and friends, the women I have loved, the writers I have esteemed, the pets who came to live with me. My heaven will be full and not at all lonely. And maybe, because I have been loved, I’ll be in other heavens too.”
Could any of us hope for more?
Craig Lancaster is a novelist who lives in Billings.
In Richard S. Wheeler’s new novel, “Anything Goes,” he turns his gifted eye for Western characters toward the Beausoleil Brothers Follies, a second- or third-rate vaudeville troupe making its way through the remote mining towns of Montana.
The first chapter, which Wheeler read Thursday in Livingston, is a humdinger of an introduction to the haggard cast of has-beens and never-wases, including two overstimulated capuchin monkeys. The book is dedicated to “my wife, the one, the only Sue Hart.” Hart, a longtime, beloved English professor at Montana State University Billings, died in 2014.
Publisher: Forge Book