Wyn Cooper, the author of five books of poetry, editor and songwriter, turns his hand to fiction for the first time with the short novel Way Out West. His writing races and leaps along like a hybrid of Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, with crisp and entertaining dialogue, minimal exposition, and enough bon mots and pithy insights to fill a devil's dictionary.
Way Out West is 'way out' in the sense of pushing toward extremes. The novel was born out West when the author was a thirty-year old Ph.D. lit program drop-out. Cooper recently revised its 162 pages, originally set down at breakneck speed, or so one surmises from this roller-coaster ride. The tale opens from the point of view of a purposeful drunk, Tyler Dutton, who scales a frozen mountain near nightfall, only to lose his grip (which mentally seems shaky already) and tumble all the way down to — a highway! With his acquired stuntman skills (he is in Nevada working on a movie), he bounces off the hood of the truck of a devastatingly cool and beautiful woman. Talk about meeting cute. It's pretty much lust-turning-to-love at first sight, and so what if Robin turns out to be self-healing from substance abuse and other issues equal to or worse than his own. Booze and drugs understand each other. In this case, for the good — she's been clean for a year though aching for her enemy every day, especially at a certain blue hour. Tyler learns that being in love and striving to charm the girl work better than Naltrexone for keeping mostly sober. Not to give away too much of the plot.
But what plot, exactly? There's no lack of intriguing elements, including possible super-secret government bomb tests (we're in the cold war Reagan years) and mysteries surrounding the yet-to-be-named movie. There's the sudden death of the director, whom Tyler is improbably tapped to replace, and a weird uninhabited futuristic city built in the desert, Arcosanto, reminiscent of American artist Michael Heiser's City, a monumental sculpture formed of earthen mounds, geoglyphs and concrete pyramids deep in the Nevada desert that took more than 50 years to construct.
One begins to track the connection between these elements, though for the first part of the book they are as hard to pin down as a desert sidewinder. No matter. My occasional confusion didn't keep me from turning these pages with pleasure. Way Out West has all of these virtues while reveling here and there in improbabilities. (See that opening encounter.) The story itself, scene by scene, is cinematic (wait! Is this book the actual missing movie script!?) and mostly set in cars — we drive in and out of Arizona, Nevada and Utah in a few short weeks — and bedrooms and barrooms. In the end and for all its zaniness, Way Out West documents the struggle of two people grappling with their own demons so that they can confront the larger demon taking shape in front of them: a government conspiracy.
Perhaps you know that Cooper wrote the lyrics for Sheryl Crow's indelible 1993 hit, All I Wanna Do. It is sung by a girl sitting in a bar with shades drawn against the light, talking though not too much to the dude beside her, sneering at the bourgies outside doing their daylight rituals. Way Out West is drenched in this same louche atmosphere, served up sometimes by Sonny, a loser bartender with an attitude — "I been pissed on all my life" — who, near the book's end, has a gun and means to use it: "His invisibility, his perceived insignificance, make him perfect for the job. He doesn't yet know that he's somebody."
One of the book's most endearing characters is Sonny, full of desires and self-doubt, oppressed by an obese lesbian mother, while Tyler and Robin, the two leads — I think of them in that cinematic way — seem more from central casting with their tough tenderness, snappy quips and sexy romps. I'd have liked more particulars about the bad things they did or had done to them in their pasts, alluded to but never stated, perhaps on the horror movie principle that a monster in the fog is scarier than one you can see clearly. Or maybe they are streamlined in order to keep Way Out West barreling along in the present toward the future, all recorded by a camera on a crane or an eye in the sky.
I'll leave you with a taste of the pithiness mentioned above at the outset:
On an actress, flirting: "It's as if she's trying to find the one he wants, but he begins to believe that the one he wants is lost in the shuffle she puts herself through daily, trying to please the men behind the cameras … They're always there, even when she walks down a street in another country, alone, their eyes follow her movements."
After meeting the — perhaps — love of the hero's life: "He knew she was a city girl when she lifted him into the truck last night, one hand on his crotch."
Later in their romance: "When he asked her if she got lonely living here, she said she'd always been lonely, but it was easier here because at least she got to be lonely alone … She saw the look on his face and said, Don't worry, if I get too lonely I'll get a horse."
"The hall is too quiet, like all hotel hallways."
"If you learn too much and don't feel enough, you become a cold fish. If you feel too much and don't learn enough, you die." Montaigne might have given Cooper a high-five for that one.