Friday, January 7, 2022

"Wanderer of the Wasteland" by Zane Grey--Fiction Review

We’re heading out to the old west today, Obscurists. Today’s book is Zane Grey’s “Wanderer of the Wasteland,” which was suggested to me by Kate Reading—no joke—that Kate Reading for those of you who are audiobook fans. Kate Reading, who has actually done tons of real stuff and narrated a mountain of awesome books! 

She also took the time to suggest to some obscure blogger—who primarily talks to himself on the internet—a book, this book, read by her husband Michael Kramer, another fantastic narrator. Sure, this interaction happened because I miss-attributed another book read by Michael Kramer on Twitter to @Kramer_Reading their joint account, which is primarily managed by Kate. Still, lesson learned, and by apologizing, I got to read this book, so it was a great mistake to make.

Zane Grey

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Something about the desert is fascinating—I’ve never actually been to one, but I’ve read many stories and nonfiction books that feature them. It’s one of those archetypical foreboding landscapes. The land where no one belongs. Right off the bat, I was drawn in by this novel’s setting, even though I can’t begin to count how many westerns in one form or another I’ve consumed over the years. So far, I’ve never grown sick of them.

Ultimately, “Wander of the Wasteland” is a survival story—but not just in the sense of the body. It’s also a survival story of how the main character retains his humanity, even in the starkest wilderness imaginable, despite it, or maybe because of it.

This next point is a minor spoiler, but it’s also really inciting action that gets the story rolling and is in most summaries of the novel. So I feel it’s fair game. Ok? Ok. 

“Wander of the Wasteland” takes a famous biblical story plotline—that of Cain and Abel—and turns it on its ear. It imagines a story of, what if Abel killed Cain instead of the other way around? It makes for an exciting thought experiment, and I thoroughly enjoyed the concept.

What I don’t love about this book:

This is a novel published originally in 1923 about the old west, and Grey certainly had—let’s say—thoughts about women. Some good, some romantic, others were weird, but mostly his views about women were just ignorant. When he wrote the novel, I don’t think back then he would have been considered controversial for his views or even was considered to have poor taste. Still, the world moves on, and it certainly moved on from the cultural reference frame he lived in while creating his classic stories.

As you might guess, since Grey’s novel has some antiquated views on women, it also features some out-of-date opinions on anyone who isn’t white. The noble savage routine is used a few times in this book, which probably seemed progressive when it was published. You can almost hear someone say in old-timey racist talk, “see here now, fellas, some of these Mexicans and Natives are like people—they’re the good ones.” That flavor of racism.

So I’m odd because I like biblical allusions in stories or events in a novel seemingly informed by scripture, but as for actual bible talk—pretty bored. It’s not even talking specifically about the bible that loses me. I can do that just fine. It’s the constant reading of God’s intentions in everything, no matter how mundane. As if that person knows. I’m not sure when this belief that God is like our own personal invisible friend became popular, but I’ve never got it. What I’m getting at is there are some preachy moments in this book, and outside of character building—it was fine—I guess.

This preview is an Amazon Affiliate link; 
as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The novel starts with Adam Larey taking off, swearing that he’ll have nothing further to do with his brother Guerd. Adam is going to go make his own way out west.

And he does, for a little while at least. He finds a small mining town, gets a job, and even gets himself involved with a passionate young woman. Everything seems to be going fine until Adam’s brother Guerd comes to town as part of the posse of a crooked Texas sheriff. Adam and Guerd’s last falling out was over a woman, and the issue repeats itself again with Adam’s newest love interest. Eventually, Adam confronts his brother in a bar, who, after wrecking Adam’s budding relationship, also insists Adam owes him money, and he’s set on having it. Things get heated, a fight breaks out, the corrupt sheriff is maimed, and Adam seemingly shoots his brother to death.

Thus begins Adam’s life as an outlaw, a “Wanderer of the Wasteland,” if you will. Pursued by the sheriff, Adam decides to make a life for himself out in the desert, using it partly as a refuge and partly as a penance. Day one of this new life—he nearly dies of heatstroke.

Adam is saved, though, by a wandering prospector who nurses him back to health, and they strike up a friendship. But Adam only gives his new friend an alias for his name—Wansfell. The prospector gives the newly christened Wansfell some advice about living in the desert, even helps to set him up with supplies, and points him in the direction of some indigenous people, who the prospector claims can help Wansfell.

After parting ways with the prospector, Wansfell is again nearly instantly beset by disaster. His burro runs off, but not before destroying all Wansfell’s new supplies. He misses the migrating tribe of indigenous people and gets trapped at an oasis for a season. The oasis’s biggest problem is Wansfell himself. As the apex predator in the area, Wansfell quickly exhausts all the food sources, and it’s while he’s nearly starved to death chasing a rattlesnake—to eat it—that he gets bit in the face by the same snake.

Wansfell wakes to find he’d been saved again, this time by the very indigenous people he had set out to find on the prospector’s advice. They’d apparently circled back through the area he was trapped in and rescued him. A young woman among them nursed him back to health. He lives for a long time with them, learns a lot about how to live in the desert, and is eventually offered the hand of the woman who saved him—to be his bride. But Wansfell feels that he cannot marry her in good conscience because he is the worst sort of murderer in his opinion, one that killed his own brother. So he’s forced to leave.

Years go by quickly at this point in the novel. Adam’s—or rather Wansfell’s legend grows as a wandering hero of the west. Wansfell has grown to be a hard but just man.

His later adventures take him to Death Valley, where he tries to save a doomed married couple as much from themselves as the elements. He also adopts a young girl who lost both of her parents and raises her as best he can. Wansfell gets the chance to save his old friend, the prospector, from bandits, but again, as a recurring theme, he can’t actually save the prospector from himself. Wansfell even finds love in a young woman who was the daughter of the woman that died in Death Valley with her crazed husband.

In the end, though, Adam has to return to where it all started. He can’t rest or hide away from his crime as Wansfell any longer. So he goes back to the small town he’d settled initially in to find his brother’s grave and turn himself in for murdering his brother.

That’s when he finds out that as a young man, he apparently wasn’t that great a shot, even at point-blank range, and his brother isn’t dead.


Ultimately, “Wanderer of the Wasteland” is a deep character study of its protagonist Adam aka “Wansfell,” which, other than being a place in the UK it also sounds like “Once Fell” again, a biblical allusion. 

Adam’s name is also the name of the first man according to the bible, which was the father of the biblical character whose life our protagonist is living out a sort of inverse. Adam’s trials in the Wasteland also have an old, and new testament feel to them throughout his life. 

What this book is, in my opinion, is a biblical sort of story but updated to a western adventure novel. It’s got its morality tales, its meditations on life, its prescriptions of what men and women ought to be like, and how people should live—but it also has quick draw gunfights out in the desert.

Leaving off this section—my last point is I’m not sure if I like the ending of this book. It’s revealed that the crime Adam has been self-flagellating himself over for the entire novel, and the better part of his adult life, never actually happened. It’s certainly surprising—to a point. The fact that Adam never has that showdown with the Texas sheriff runs against the grain of the old wisdom of Chekhov’s gun, by my reckoning too.

Parting thoughts:

Why I think I like stories featuring a desert setting or the ocean comes from the same place as why I like my science fiction space stories. They’re stories of a frontier. There is just something primal about wanting to know what’s over that next hill—maybe there be dragons. And wouldn’t that be something?

Come to think of it, that’s probably what attracted me to epic fantasy stories stemming from the tradition of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” too. Those stories also feature frontiers, and journeys, and seeing nearly inaccessible vistas.

This also feeds into my real-world interest in space exploration. From a practical standpoint, the Earth is a closed system, and our growing population and the associated demands of that growth on our poor planet continue to balloon each day. I can’t see how it isn’t inevitable that we either spread outward off this planet, eventually, or a lot of us will one day need to not be here by alternative methods. I fundamentally don’t trust that second choice—because I flat out don’t trust anyone to do the “choosing” in that situation.

But that’s only the boring practical reasons why I value space exploration. The deeper, more romantic reasons why I love the concept is simply because I want to know what’s over there. What’s happening in just the star system next door? It’s indisputable that it would be really, really, hard to get there. But it’s not entirely impossible. And who knows, maybe there be space dragons.

No comments:

Post a Comment