“I been wrong all my life. Music don’t make you feel more. Just makes you feel how much you keep missing”
— Joseph Scapellato, ‘Cowboy Good Stuff’s Four True Lovers’
Through a careful give and take between familiar imagery and surrealist flourishes, Joseph Scapellato’s debut collection Big Lonesome is a subversive love letter to The Wild West, skewing archetypes just enough to subvert the myths and tropes of the genre. Split into three sections– ‘Old West’, ‘New West’ and ‘Post-West’– the book stretches the notion of The West into the present and beyond, resulting in twenty-five stories of considerable variation that nonetheless hang upon the All-American themes of individualism, identity and history.
Unsurprisingly, ‘Old West’ is the most traditional of the segments, though this is not to say Scapellato plays it straight. ‘Big Lonesome Beginnings’ sets the tone, a story centred on a saunter of cowboys, one armed with a guitar in place of an absent Her, the others forcing themselves to stay awake so as not to miss what the music has them feeling. “He knew his music would never be a body,” Scapellato writes, “but he played it nonetheless.” From here we are introduced to cowboys of all shapes and sizes, from the eponymous centaurian hero of ‘Horseman Cowboy’ to the puny cowboy of ‘Mutt-Face’ who attempts (unsuccessfully) to drink himself big, each character representing some spin on the masculine mystique of Western mythology. One standout is ‘Thataway’, where a hard-luck cowboy lives in fear of a ‘rile’ which rises within him and (worse) the ‘weepies’ which sometimes follow. Sitting in a laundromat, he meets an odd old man who speaks of the ‘brown boy’ who climbs down throats and hugs hearts but ultimately abandons you. The story grows increasingly hallucinatory, the old man growing more strange and the brown boy manifesting physically. The cowboy comes to learn that beneath his fear of his emotions lies a deeper dread, a dark dead absence that grins behind the early promise of narcotic relief.
“Most nothings showed up where a something used to be, and the gone something was what you used to measure the nothing. This nothing had come from where there had never been anything. There was no telling how much of him it would require, and for how long, and to what end. It was much worse than the weepies” (23).
The jewel at the centre of ‘Old West’ is ‘Cowboy Good Stuff’s Four True Loves’, a piece split into subheadings detailing either a true love (“His First”, “His Second”, etc.) or other notable and metaphorically-ripe events from the cowboy’s life. His first three loves are women—a singing whore, a blushing teacher, a star-crossed senorita—but the fourth is a radio. Finding the cowboy in his old age and sharing wistful wisdom with a local kid (“Music don’t make the world smaller. Just makes you bigger.”), this final section paints loneliness in its true light, comprehensive and all-consuming yet also surprisingly feeble, a force that feels like the default state right up until it is no longer. The result is a Saunders-like sense of compassion and empathy, love appearing at irregular intervals to slap Good Stuff in the face and help him see clearly for however long it lasts.
“The way he saw it, love had always come to him like a thing remembered. Known and new. And now the radio! It received what it was given, and what it received it gave. It gave to those who gathered round. What was far was now” (36).
‘New West’ drags us forward into something like the present day, where the cowboys are still cowboys, yet ones reared on the Western myth. As such, it’s impossible to tell whether this West is one big performance or something intrinsic in the American spirit, loneliness and self-destruction made halfway gratifying by the knowledge of those already lost to the curse, by a nostalgia for something that was never quite yours. Again, the stories range from the mundane to the fantastic, the latter typified by ‘Cowgirl’, where a human female born of a cow traverses life in strange detachment, thoughts and feelings arriving and dissipating without warning, her mind clouded (or not) by a bovine thoughtlessness. ‘A Mother Buries a Gun in the Desert Again’ is a pretty literal expansion of the title, charting the slow sadness of ageing and steady surrender to liquid distractions, while ‘Small Boy’ serves as a direct challenge of the whole Heroic Western trope, asking a variety of people a simple question with the forthright innocence only found in young children. “Why did we kill all the Indians?”
Closing story ‘Snake Canyon’ has a Jon Raymond/Kelly Reinhardt vibe, finding two friends retreating to the wilderness as a salve against day-to-day life. “The air was clean and dry, but flush with the feeling they’d come for,” Scapellato writes. “An emptying out: an emptying in. A reminder that they were made out of their bodies” (95). Disaster strikes, as one of the men gets so badly injured the other must to carry him down the mountain, and the heart of the New West experience is revealed. Having a weird out-of-body experience, the man sees himself saving his friend’s life. At first, he is filled with pride at the vision, though doubts soon creep in as he wishes he was stronger and more confident in his life-saving ability. Finally, he turns to anger, furious at an imagined audience judging his every action, seeing his act of heroism in its less-than-glorious detail, recognising him not as a Western hero but a fallible human. The idea that the truth of the Old West was equally human/cowardly lurks at the back of the story, a vague awareness of some self-imposed amnesia, a blurring of the truth.
“By intentionally or unintentionally overlooking history, American communities could choose to shape and be shaped by imagined futures that, at least initially, appeared untouched by American mistakes, by American embarrassments. Freedom in forgetting” (96-7)
If ‘New West’ is a contemporary West, then ‘Post-West’ is a contemporary Midwest, representing another step away from American history toward the imagined futures referenced above. Still, the characters here seem just as lost, either dizzied by their new-found freedom or else confused by some looming strangeness, as though history lurks just out of view, a gigantic body disrupting the normal forces of life. ‘It Meant There Would Be More’ is one such example, a story examining a couple and their life within an apartment complex where communication feels subtly impossible, every interaction a thin skin atop of a deep recess of fear and feeling.
I took her hand, the one with the keys. I talked about what we were and what we could be.
She took back her hand. “When you talk about us you don’t mean what you say.
“I mean it now.”
“Exactly. That’s it, that’s all” (122).
Focusing on a man who takes his fiance’s dog to a bar, ‘Dead Dogs’ follows a similar vein, the canine triggering a series of patrons to approach with tales of the own, long deceased pets. One-sided and almost entirely for their own benefit, their stories are more like soliloquies, Evan Dara-like monologues whose natural cadences mask a broader sadness. Again the sense is one of stilted communication, people with this urgent need to share what’s inside their heads yet either too embarrassed to do so or else finding words and phrases insufficient, the message degraded upon contact with air. ‘Company’ confronts this head on, with a person trying to get another to talk, or at least know they can should they feel so inclined. The story progresses to a suicide attempt, the sense of danger sharpening the narrator’s plea:
“You’re no addict brother, you’re not insane, you haven’t been beaten or abused or abandoned. You’re okay! You’re okay, so what is it, what is it always, and why have we only ever talked around it?” (174)
What’s striking about ‘Company’, and indeed the majority of the collection, is the push and pull of the past. “I can’t stop plunging my head into the past,” the narrator says, “even though it’s hard to breathe in” (170). Here, times gone are both something to escape and retreat into, to remember and forget, questions and answers and warnings all rolled into one. They come with lessons we’d do well to learn, expectations we’d do well to ignore. Ultimately, Big Lonesome paints the past as something that can destroy us, and as something that could save our souls.
The lure of making a companion mixtape for this one proved just too much. Just like the collection, we’ve broken the playlist into three distinct sections.
1) The Rev. J.M. Gates – Death’s Black Train is Coming
2) Ken Maynard – The Lone Star Trail
3) Bascom Lamar Lunsford – Dry Bones
4) Uncle Dave Macon – Walking in the Sunlight
5) Blind Lemon Jefferson – See That My Grave is Kept Clean
6) Harry Jackson – Some Cowboy Brag Talk
7) Andrew Weathers Ensemble – You Are Powerful We Are Taking Over
8) Fog Lake – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
9) Sawtooth – Dead Dog Eyes
10) Jordan O’Jordan – A Lonely Road
11) The Dead Tongues – Stained Glass Eyes
12) Ben Seretan – Cottonwood Tree
13) Frederick Squire – Old Times Past New Times
14) Dear Nora – The Lonesome Border, Pt. 1
15) Phosphorescent – A New Anhedonia (Live On KEXP)
16) YOWL – Saturday Drag
17) Advance Base – Nephew in the Wild
18) Talons’ – Change
Photo From the Joseph Scapelatto Website / Cover (re)design by Liam Doyle