Review: Clive Sinclair’s True Tales Of The Wild West

By David Herman, August 1, 2008

By Clive Sinclair
Picador £9.99

Part-fiction, part-history, Clive Sinclair's new book is hard to categorise, but one thing is certain, it has a great subject - the heyday of the Wild West. Here are all the familiar names: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid and Geronimo, Dodge City and Custer.

Sinclair tells some of these terrific stories straight, sometimes very movingly. His account of what happened to the Native Americans is especially powerful. The book is packed with detail and insights from a great deal of reading, lightly worn.

Then these famous tales are given a twist. Sinclair tells them from a present-day vantage-point, describing what is left today of these legendary places as seen by two fictional characters, both middle-aged English Jews.

Peppercorn is a photo-journalist and his cousin, Noah Saltzman, teaches American Studies at the University of St Albans. Both have a sharp eye for the gap between history and myth, how dime novels, Hollywood and TV have sensationalised and distorted the stories of the cowboys and lawmen of late-19th-century America so that it becomes almost impossible to tell where fact stops and legend begins.
Saltzman visits the set of the Ponderosa, the ranch from the 1960s TV show, Bonanza, which turns out to be a fake. The actual series was filmed at Hollywood. What he has seen is "the replica of a studio set", which was itself at some kind of strange angle to the reality of the Wild West. Later, we encounter Mark Twain's bloodcurdling newspaper report of a massacre. This, too, is a fake, invented by Twain. "Let it stand as a warning to pilgrims who want to discover the True West, thought Saltzman. Don't believe a word you read. Double-check everything."

So far, so postmodern. At times, the book becomes a hall of mirrors. Saltzman teaches at The University of St Albans (USA); Sinclair lives in St Albans, Herts. And isn't that Sinclair himself we see in one (or more) of the grainy photos of Saltzman, dressed up as a cowboy? The book jacket may look like an old-style Western, but beware appearances. It's an awful lot smarter and more playful.

And there is another twist. One minute we're looking at the Wild West, past and present, through the eyes of two clever sceptics, Peppercorn and Saltzman. The next moment, the narrative changes focus and we see, up close, the lives and hopes of two sad, lonely middle-aged men, who suddenly look very exposed. We also get occasional glimpses of their childhood in Hendon, two boys playing cowboy games. Neither these men nor America itself are as innocent as they once were.

So what do the myths of the Wild West mean now, not only to the country that produced them, but also to the people who grew up with them?

This is a brilliant idea for a book. Hugely informative about the Wild West, it is intelligent, amusing and at times moving. It is an interesting new direction for one of Britain's best Jewish writers.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011