Spring 1989, Volume 6.1
BARRY W. SARCHETT
The Adventures of Barney Tullus by Don D. Walker. Albuquerque. University of New Mexico Press, 1988, xi + 240 pp., $19.95.
A founding member of the Western Literature Association and one of a handful of writers who, as William Pilkington has said, have "brought Western criticism to its maturity," Don Walker has created a body of literary and historiographical criticism essential to students of the literature of the American West. Now, fortunately, Walker's humorous fictional tales of Barney Tullus and the other Pahvant Range waddies of Pulley's Ranch, previously known to relatively few readers, have been collected and published for what we should hope to be a much wider audience.
The Adventures of Barney Tullus is a crafted and crafty book. The first section, "Genesis," consists primarily of Walker's short satire of western literary criticism (long known to the aficionados of the Western Literature Association), "The Rise and Fall of Barney Tullus." As Walker himself tells us in his preface, Barney was first conceived out of the "rhetorical necessity" of this satire/manifesto which has become known as the "Pooh Perplex of Western American literature." "The Rise and Fall" alerts us, as we begin the "Adventures" themselves, to Walker's playfully ironic stance as both a writer of comic western fiction and a critical theorist of western American literature.
The "Adventures" thus consist of two different series of stories: among twelve (mis)adventures of Barney and the other hands at Pulley's are four interpolated stories narrated by an avid reader of the critically acclaimed novel, The Rise and Fall of Barney Tullus, who seeks out and befriends Barney's confused, blocked, and bourbonsoaked "author." Obviously, we're as close to Flann O'Brien or John Barth territory here as we are to Owen Wister or Max Evans. Maybe closer.
The twelve "actual" adventures of Barney, Mont, Burt, Sill (the cook), and Andy (the rather literate, bemused narrator)-all working cowboys hired by Mr. Pulley for his ranch outside of Pinville-stem from the rich tradition of southwestern humor as defined by Hooper, Thorpe, G. W. Harris, Clemens, and finally Faulkner. Walker's sense of comic incongruity and controlled hyperbole, as well as his masterful sense of dialect, fits him for the company he wants to keep.
But these are western tall tales with a difference. Pulley's cowboys are always caught up in the problem of their own cowboyness: they prefer pickups to horses, the nearest they get to gunplay is an old Gary Cooper movie, and the only Indians they fight are a tribe of hippies who liberate a comer of Mr. Pulley's ranch. Appropriately, many of Barney's adventures involve outsiders-usually academics-who visit the ranch specifically to study or to exploit the cowboys; as Mont says, "The cowboys, that's us. We're the last living remnants." For the various filmmakers, folklorists, historians, literature professors, and other avatars of the greenhorn Easterner who plop down on the Pinville area, Barney and the crew are merely "data," as Ef, the agriculture efficiency expert from the Flat Mountain Home Study College of Management, likes to remind them.
While Barney and the boys repeatedly attempt to live up to others' expectations of what it means to be a cowboy, in the other four stories the author of the Tullus tales has to wrestle with what it means to be a western writer. In the midst of changing critical as sumptions which sanction such strange literary critters as the "Metawestern" or the "New Novel," the author, as Barney would say, feels tangled in a short rope. So he "swallows the pill of failure" by chasing it with bottle after bottle of eight I -year-old Black Bull. That is, until the narrator convinces him to "Trust the critics. Trust them to find whatever needs to be found." Then the creative juices flow again, and "The Blue Saddle Blanket," a nouveau western, is the result.
In the interplay between Barney's creator's struggle with the critics and Barney's struggle with cowboy mongers of all sorts lies the raison d'etre (as Barney wouldn't say) of Walker's comic inventions. He's out to make an "intervention" (as Barney's author wouldn't say) in the cultural conventions by which both western writers and critics have defined the cowboy. Significantly, the narrator of the four interpolated stories reads Donald Barthelme, a writer Walker has learned as much from as Faulkner. Many of the stories in The Adventures of Barney Tullus are, like Barthelme's, exercises in the bending and mixing of popular formulas and genres. Walker's book of stories, in the great tradition of western (as in Western Civilization) fiction, glosses and demystifies its generic antecedents. Just as Pulley's cowboys often seem more like the Marx Brothers or the Bowery Boys than the Three Mesquiteers, Walker's stories are sly mixtures of western yarns with love stories, horror stories, or detective stories.
This gesture, of course, calls attention to the stories' own artifice, the primacy of the writer's imagination. In many ways, Walker's critical career has been an affirmation of the imaginative power of fiction. Thus his bete noir has always been those critics and writers of the "school of authenticism," represented in "The Rise and Fall" by Dr. Angus McFrisby, professor of English at the Upper Pahvant College for Girls. McFrisby and his ilk know only how to compare novelistic cowboys with "real" cowboys (whatever those things are). As Walker says:
[McFrisby] is not really a critic, [but] a bastard type, fathered by a third-rate historian and mothered by a retarded lady who never got over the shock of learning that Shakespeare lied when he added those years to young Prince Hal. What can he know of the acts of the creative imagination, when he has none of his own?
With The Adventures of Barney Tullus, Don Walker has demonstrated how the creative imagination of a superb critic can be reconciled with the creative imagination of a gifted storyteller.