Zach's Reviews > Warlock

Warlock by Oakley Hall
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Jun 08, 11

bookshelves: fiction
Read in September, 2009

An existential western, I suppose? A story of humanity forcing some meaning into (or out of) their lives, contending all the while with the madness of crowds, political reputations, and expectations both internal and external. I can't really think of a way to explain it without sounding kind of hokey, but it doesn't come across that way in the book at all.

But anyway, it IS a western, and so you have the outlaws, and the new marshal and his friend the saloon owner, and the concerned townfolk, and a lot of showdowns. Only this book is concerned with the source of Order and Right (Men are wild, not wicked, said Rousseau, who knew not Warlock) and so, as it turns out, some people are more satisfied with the chief outlaw keeping order among his men than with the new marshal imposing the law. Only the marshal isn't actually the Law-he has been hired by the Citizens' Committee of shop-owners. The Law, such as it is in the unincorporated West (Possibly she came, too, because this is the Frontier, which term I understand is a romantic one to those not there residing), rests with a string of deputies, the last of whom is determined to make something honorable of the position. Only he used to ride with the outlaws, so no one in town trusts him. Meanwhile there's also a mining strike (again, who maintains Order, the workers or the company?), a romantic interest for the marshal who is more concerned with his ideal than with the man himself, businessmen seeking a town charter, an insane cavalry general, a drunken judge who occasionally presents the moral foundations of the book, and a woman with a mysterious past involving the marshal and the saloon owner (a strong female character from a western written more than 50 years ago!).

All of this in deceptively simple prose that manages to be ornate without stooping to floridity. Incredible.


Ah, the pure shine of a few moments of heroism, high courage and derring-do! In its light we genuflect before the Hero, we bask in the warmth of his Deeds, we tout him, shout his praises, deify him, and, in short, make of him what no mortal man could ever be. We are a race of tradition-lovers in a new land, of king-reverers in a Republic, of hero-worshipers in a society of mundane get-and-spend. It is a Country and a Time where any bank clerk or common laborer can become a famous outlaw, where an outlaw can in a very short time be sainted in song and story into a Robin Hood, where a Frontier Model Excalibur can be drawn from the block at any gunshop for twenty dollars.

Yet it is only one side of us, and we are cynical and envious too. As one half of our nature seeks to create heroes to worship, the other must ceaselessly attempt to cast them down and discover evidence of feet of clay, in order to label them as mere lucky fellows, or as villains-were-the-facts-but-known, and the eminent and great are ground between the millstones of envy, and reduced again to common size.
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Reading Progress

09/04/2009 page 12
2.46% "the print on this edition is WAY too close to the outer margins of the page. I am unreasonably annoyed by this."
09/21/2009 page 360
73.77% ""The human animal is set apart from other beasts by his infinite capacity for creating fictions.""

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Zach I forgot to mention what a hard time I had choosing among all the quotes I loved to illustrate the themes of the book. This was one of my other favorites:

He leaned back easily. "For instance, I was just remembering way back about that old Tejano in Fort James I skinned in a poker game. Won all his clothes, and there he was, stamping around town in his lousy, dirty long-handles with his shell belt and his boots on-he wouldn't put those in the pot. Remember that? I forget his name."

"Hurst," Clay said.

"Hurst. The sheriff got on him about going around that way. 'Indecent!' he yelled. 'Why, shurf, I've been sewed inside these old long-johns for three years now and I'm not even sure I have got any skin underneath. Or I'd had them in the pot too, and then where'd we be?'

"Remember that?" he said, and laughed, and it hurt him to see Clay laughing with him. "Remember that?" he said again. "I was thinking about that. And how people get sewed up into things even lousier and dirtier than those long-handles of Hurst's."



message 2: by Kelly (new)

Kelly It sounds like the literary version of Deadwood, and I loved that show, so I'm sold. Excellent review.


Zach thanks, Kelly. I really can't recommend it highly enough.

I only saw the first season of Deadwood (many years ago), but I think the comparison is definitely an apt one-if anything, the moral maze in Warlock is even more convoluted than Deadwood's.

it's a bit like Blood Meridian, too, in its examination of violence in the American West, but coming from the opposite direction-where McCarthy is showing us the nihilism inherent in such bloodshed, the human characters in Warlock always kill someone for a reason... they're just rarely very good reasons, we feel.

It just occurred to me that they both also have men who are called "Judge" despite not actually having any official standing and who function almost like Greek choruses at times.


message 4: by Kelly (new)

Kelly You know, I still haven't read any McCarthy (I know, I know, I will), but what you say of Warlock and its moral universe makes me incline towards trying this one first, I think.The writing here seems far more likely to convey something worth hearing without the burden of staying within McCarthy's various artifical literary quirks imposed on top of it (at least from what I have heard of his stylistic choices- the reason I have stayed away from his writing).

I'm shocked to hear that any Western could be more convoluted than Deadwood with its warped Fools and failed Macbeths, but I'm very interested to see it. Thanks again!


message 5: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy Hmm, you know when I read about the Judge character in your review, Zach, that's the first thing I thought of -- Blood Meridian. And indeed, BM's Judge could be said to "present[:] the moral foundations of the book."

But I would shy away from saying BM's Judge functions like a Greek chorus. For the Greeks, choral exposition presented the moral universe in which all actions would be treated; and the lessons of the outcomes of certain actions were equivalent to moral injunctions. The admonitions of a chorus are didactic.

I don't know how the Judge in Warlock is treated, but I certainly don't think the Judge in BM is meant to be a didactic figure. He may be presenting his vision of a moral universe, but it's not a moral logic; if anything, it's illogic. The reader is as disturbed by the vision as he is convinced. And so the Judge is an agent (cf. a Chorus) in a moral conflict, although it is a conflict in which there is no one to oppose his vision. The Judge is Satan, and God is dead, you might say. But this places him central to the storytelling, not a commentator on its logic.

And, Kelly, McCarthy may have "literary quirks" which people find more or less obnoxious, but they are certainly not in any way distracting. In this case, unusual stylistic choices are no reason to stay away.



Zach Isaiah: touche. I was playing with a pretty loose definition of Greek chorus, I guess, in that the Judges in both these novels understand more of the plot than any of the other characters and function (almost) as narrators.

it's been a few years since I've read BM, also.


message 7: by trivialchemy (new)

trivialchemy Yeah, well said. And glad to see you gave BM five stars! The Judge definitely understands more of what's going on than the other characters in BM. This is how he manages to orchestrate as well as commentate. In fact, there's something about that which is beyond his influence which sickens him.

The freedom of birds is an insult to me, the Judge says, I'd have them all in zoos.

But at the same time -- now that I get to thinking -- isn't there something about the nature of the Judge's sadistic relativism and eschatological striving that actually leaves him apart from the substance of the novel -- there is some moral substance in which he does not participate:

At the farther end the bridge gave onto a small street that ran along the river. Here the Vandiemenlander stood urinating from a stone wall into the water. When he saw the judge commit the dogs from the bridge he drew his pistol and called out.

The dogs disappeared in the foam … The Vandiemenlander raised and cocked the pistol… The pistol bucked in his hand and one of the dogs leaped in the water and he cocked it again and fired again and a pink stain diffused. He cocked and fired the pistol a third time and the other dog also blossomed and sank.


As an actor in these sick acts of cruelty, the Judge (and Vandiemenlander, though less clearly), is actually forbidden the moral clarity of the reader; whatever it is that the reader sees when he recoils at this passage, the Judge is blind to. So he narrates, yes, but the narration is unreliable and on incomplete (absent) moral knowledge. Ultimately the reader must return to himself for the kind of clarity that a chorus or Kunderan narrator might have provided.

Anyway, yeah, I really ought to check out Warlock. I'm not sure if the quotes really do it for me, but your description sounds great.


message 8: by Rayroy (new) - added it

Rayroy Great review I fear many readers over look this book because they think it's just a stright up western.


Zach Thanks, Con


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