Francis Blackstone, the young hopeless romantic and charming dime-novel star of frontier Arizona, “has never found it easy to discuss his own place in the world or his aimless wanderings or, most of all, the decisions he makes.” And as the protagonist of Tyler Enfield’s new novel, he sure doesn’t make it easy for us — the readers — to discuss his place in the Old West, circa 1888, or his intertextual wanderings toward a town that “somehow jumps about on a map, appearing both here and there depending on who’s looking.” Trying to discuss Francis and his band of gunslingers, trying to understand their place within this story and within the mythology and fact of the frontier, trying to follow the rich and temporally shifting allusions that Enfield’s equally enigmatic narrator weaves throughout these pages — well, as Twain would say, “There’s millions in it.”
Like Rum-Drunk Angels is a difficult Western to pin down, which seems appropriate for a genre that’s long plied tropes of erasure and violence, stereotype and domination — tropes that have rightly worn out their welcome since the days of The Virginian and Riders of the Purple Sage. It’s a truth that Shatzy Shell, that sibylline storyteller in Alessandro Baricco’s cult classic City, knows through and through as she shapes the story of Closingtown. And it’s a fact that echoes throughout this book — like running water echoing in the deep canyons of the Southwest. With a yarn like this, you don’t always know what you’re hearing, where it’s coming from, and certainly not what it means, but there’s little you’d rather do than sit on your horse and listen for a while.
Francis, fourteen when the story begins, is a “passionate contrarian” out to win the heart of a girl whose name he does not even know. In a town called Nowhere, his path crosses that of Bob Temple, a fatalistic outlaw reputed to have once scalped an angel, who has a map that leads Francis down an abandoned mine shaft and into an ancient tomb. Does he encounter a ghost down there in the dark? A genie? Maybe just the whispers of Scheherazade? What we know is this: “In his wildest dreams, Francis could not have thought to prepare against such a moment.” And we know that he emerges from the mine with a lamp, surely a charmed but possibly cursed emblem that comes in and out of focus throughout the novel.
In short order, Francis and Bob start a gang that includes Francis’s doting older brother, Samuel, and their best friend, Ned Runkle. Together, the Blackstone Templars spend a year crashing about Arizona, Nevada, and California — robbing trains and causing landslides, accidentally taking opium, evading vengeful rivals and flying pianos, and pursuing a fortune foretold by Amish triplets. As Francis chases his love, America comes to love him for all that he symbolizes, “an ideology of such mythological proportions that the world has yet to contain its progress.”
“I don’t get you,” the much-older Bob Temple says to his partner in crime, shortly before they are to rob a bank. “Not one bit.” There’s tension between the two from the beginning, not that the young hero seems to mind, at least not right away. “That’s fine,” Francis replies. “I’ve never even asked you to.”
Temple’s efforts to understand Francis — his frustrations with the Dynamite Kid, as the newspapers dub him, along with his awe — parallel our own. But who, exactly, are we?
Tyler Enfield, a writer and filmmaker from Edmonton, takes roughly seventy pages before he first breaks the narrative facade that ought to separate him from his narrator, his narrator from his protagonist, his protagonist from us. It’s almost imperceptible, just nine words: “The author of this story appears to feel different.” Ten pages later, and for only a moment, we’re reminded again that false fronts define any Western; the narrator shifts to the second person, addressing the reader as “you.” Then it’s the reference to “a Disneyland of fossil-fuelled ecotourism” and hints of the Trump administration’s decision to open federally protected lands to resource development. There’s the chapter heading that reads “That Night, Francis Blackstone Dreams He Is You” (and is that John Lennon with a walrus moustache who keeps showing up in those dreams?). There’s also an aside about Prometheus, the world’s oldest tree, which a non-fictional graduate student working for the U.S. Forest Service cut down in 1964, some seventy-five years after the fictional Francis naps under its shade in the Nevada mountains. “When Francis later stood to urinate upon the tree it was an act of homage, knowing the scarcity of moisture in these parts.” With increasing frequency and urgency, the reader is beckoned with such narrative intrusions. How are we to interpret this fraught and multi-faceted landscape, we are asked, whether then or now?
Moby-Dick so rewards return readers because Melville didn’t mind shifting voice, playing with form, bringing the past into the present, and the present into the past. In so many respects, he threw out convention. Each time you reopen Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s story is that much more believable, that much more absurd. Is Ishmael even the narrator’s name? Similarly, with its well-placed anachronisms and subtle cultural commentary that goes almost unnoticed at first, Like Rum-Drunk Angels will reward the second or third read. “Many will say this is not possible,” as even the narrator admits, “and so it would seem, which is precisely why its effect is sufficient to bring both parties to a halt.”
Some conventions of the Western die hard, of course, and eventually the penny drops — Francis must return to Nowhere to save his girl. In one way or the other, he is forced to part with the gang and the others who join him on his peregrinations: “Francis is sad to discover he’s not an adult. He’s just a boy after all. He never knew it was possible to feel this broken. This alone.”
We — the readers of today — have read and watched enough Westerns of yesterday to know that Francis doesn’t end up alone. But like a town that jumps from place to place on a map, his journey from a judge’s son in Nowhere to a celebrated outlaw everywhere to an old man sitting on his porch in Tucson is one full of tricks and sleights of hand.
“I got a not-good feeling about this one,” Francis says before his last train robbery, to nobody in particular. And then the narrator says this, to us:
It will be another ninety years before someone can look up from this very spot, the spot Francis presently sits his horse, and see the image of a skyscraper warped and abstracted in the windowed face of another just like it. That someone will shout words Francis has never heard, their meaning contingent upon invention. They will express gladness at alien concepts and neon signage.
We are that someone. And as we ride into the sunset alongside Francis Blackstone — as Tyler Enfield pans his camera across vistas that are at once familiar and alien — we are the lucky ones, charged with inventing meaning out of a novel that refuses to be contained.