Big Lonesome, by Joseph Scapellato. Boston, Massachutesetts: Mariner Books, February 2017. 192 pages. $13.95, paper.
Joseph Scapellato’s collection is a lot of things: risky, honest, and romantic. Big Lonesome will turn your idea of the Western genre on its head, creating new thoughts, before turning again, and again. Cowboys and Indians and horses and the dust of the Old West and the New. And the weird. Especially the weird. I would say this is timely, considering that this election forced us to think hard about our past, some think kindly, some would rather escape it. We have a very vivid image of what the West was, and is, and seeing Scapellato tear down the walls of that reality was nothing short of beautiful.
Many of the stories in this collection resemble scenes of those old Westerns like The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and countless others we thought about in our televised dreams. It’s hard to stop reading all of the stories due to their magnificently crafted hooks of first sentences. Scapellato wastes no time, there’s a sense of urgency to get us to the heart of every story. In a collection solely dedicated to the old frontier, Scapellato impresses by drawing us into this world again and again. “Thataway” comes to mind with the nameless characters that seem familiar. “Small Boy” is a snowball heading downhill, asking a very difficult (and rather timely, considering recent events) question, searching for an answer that is constantly out of reach. “The Veteran” is a photograph of the slow tearing down of a man’s hope. All of these stories hit different nerves and nothing seems recycled.
The intricate and detailed nature of every story is best seen in “Five Episodes of White-Hat Black-Hat,” a throwback to everything beautiful, and terrible, about the genre. Our bitter humanity is seen here and Scapellato threads poetic language throughout:
The pony express rider rode in from the mountains. He was also asleep. His horse, starving, trotted past the white-hat cowboy. The mail in the saddlebags had a lot to say and couldn’t wait to say it. When opened, it would tell of the men shot, women kidnapped, cattle rustled, and gold stolen by the black-hat cowboy and his gang of outlaws. It would tell of the tribesmen ambushed by soldiers and the soldiers ambushed by tribesmen and the slaves running from slave-owners and the slave-owners running after slaves. It would tell the white-hat cowboy, I am a monster.
It would be easy to make some kind of Westworld reference here, as it is fresh in the collective mind. But I’d argue that Big Lonesome does it better—it has a pulse here. We aspire to be White Hats in a world where Black Hats overwhelm us. There is a sense of beauty with every sunrise and sunset in a world we are just getting to understand. Here, Scapellato brings the best of the genre and pumps Hulk inspired gamma radiation into every line.
“Small Boy” takes a different route to this reality. A boy asks a very simple question and a series of similar situations occur over and over again. He learns by asking these questions, getting confusing answers, and continues to ask questions. Perhaps this is the most important story, or rather best timed, considering we live in a world of near eternal divide. A young and innocent boy tries to make sense of a topic he doesn’t know—the Indians—and is met with resistance from friends and family. Scapellato manages to allow the boy to arrive to his conclusion on his own terms instead of forcing him to learn the truth. This story is only a few pages long but resonates with the reader.
Books sometimes come across your desk at precisely the right time. It would be easy to ignore the divide we live in, it would be harmful to discard this book as something that one should read simply because it’s good writing (which I assure you is that and much more). By looking in the past, by facing our nostalgic romanticism of a world long forgotten, maybe we can find a way to create a better future. Or a weird future, if Scapellato has his way. Big Lonesome is something we should read with open eyes and a fresh imagination. It might just get us through the day. I sure hope it can.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.