Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys is forthcoming with Coach House Books in Spring, 2023.
The novel takes up the legacy of violent masculinity through the figure of John Wayne and his role as Ethan Edwards in the film The Searchers (Dir. John Ford, 1956). Ford’s film has been lauded by a generation of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, and was listed as the number twelve American movie all time by the American Film Institute; Wayne’s acting within the film has likewise been praised as his best performance. Just as telling, the film was also named Brietbart’s number one movie of all time in 2015; that Breitbart, a notoriously far right-wing website, would name this film as the pinnacle of filmmaking illuminates its place within the consciousness of a “Make America Great Again” ethos. I wanted to revisit this text, including the original novel by Alan Le May (1954), in order to unpack its complicated legacy as it surfaces the overlaps between the genre of Western movies, John Wayne, settler colonialism, toxic masculinity and our current moment of aggrieved individualism and heightened nationalism.
The first section is set on a Saturday night and is entirely dialogue between a woman and man, both in their mid-30s, in her apartment in Toronto. Like Luis Molina in Puig’s book, the woman recounts, scene by scene, the events of “The Searchers” to the man, all the while trying to explain to him why she is so obsessed with the film. The first section then weaves together both of their personal histories and relationship with their families, in particular their fathers, alongside the events of the film; the film then opens up further conversations into contemporary fears around masculinity and the long and complicated shadow that a figure like John Wayne casts. The woman argues that the film is indicative of certain narratives of male identity that she finds related to events like the Toronto terrorist attacks of recent years that were carried out by young men. Her thinking and arguing is balanced by his resistance and his own childhood in a small town in British Columbia, and how he was raised in that conservative environment. The first section is framed around the film, and its climax is a near violent altercation between the man and woman, after which the man storms out.
The second section of the book takes place two days later after an unnamed catastrophic event has taken place in downtown Toronto; while the book never names the event, it appears eventually to be a terrorist attack on a series of downtown buildings. The man wakes up just after these events and goes out into his St. James Town neighbourhood: first he attempts to figure out what happened, and, second, he tries to “heroically” get across the city to the woman’s apartment. This second section is told via a stream of consciousness style in which the chaos and urgency of the mysterious events is the background for the increasing blurring between the man’s recounting of what he sees and hallucinations based in his own memories. In conversation with Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” (1985), there is a cloud that inches further north from downtown, and it’s unclear how that cloud is affecting him as his journey across Toronto descends further into darkness and violence. The second half echoes the plot of “The Searchers,” with the man casting himself as a pseudo-John Wayne type figure, who, in the end, is undone by his stereotypically masculine actions.