Silver Light by David Thomson

It’s a movie, Susan!  It’s like a girl: it doesn’t have to make sense if it’s beautiful.  Just watch.

I am the target audience for this book, the one person in the world who can get all the references and appreciate exactly what the author is trying to do.  Maybe me and a small handful of others.  By rights Silver Light should be my favorite book of the year, since it was written with me in mind, or could have been.  But things just didn’t quite work out.

Silver Light is a western for lovers of westerns, a book both about the great western films of Hollywood’s golden age and about the stories that inspired those westerns.  It’s a piece of meta-fiction as interested in how the American west has been represented as it is in the actual people represented.  It’s a wonderful premise.

Bark Baylock and his lifelong friend Susan Garth form the core of Silver Light. Each born to the men and women who pioneered the Santa Fe corridor, their life stories are the stories of the American west.  Susan’s father was Matthew Garth, the character played by Montgomery Clift in Red River.   While Red River ends with Matthew Garth riding off into the sunset, Silver Light tells what happened to him afterwards.

Bark Baylock’s parentage is unknown, his mother deserved the reputation she had as a loose woman.  His father could be Wyatt Earp, the man who won the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Or it could be Bat Masterson, the one time buffalo hunter who later wrote a regular column for the New York Morning Telegraph.  What is certain is that Bark was adopted and raise by Ethan Edwards, the man played by John Wayne in The Searchers.

Silver Light begins with these classic westerns as though they were real events.  (For the record, some of them were.)  The book follows the characters from them these movies for the rest of their lives until some of them eventually meet the people who will play them in the movie.

I think that’s a great idea.  If you’re a fan of American film, you’ll find plenty of fun in Silver Light.  Characters from Chinatown, Heaven’s Gate, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance all appear in Silver Light, along with classic actors and directors like John Wayne, John Ford and Erich Von Stroheim who makes a cameo while filming his classic “lost film” Greed in California’s Death Valley:

“I am not cheerful, Bark.  I am magnificent!  I am Ozymandias–‘Look at my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing else remains but the lone and level sands.’ That’s it, near enough.  You see, Bark–Shelley, ignoramus–any fool can make a good picture: Griffith, Lang, Sjostrom, Feuillade, Charlie, The Russians even. But I, the Von, I am making,” his fierce, sultry buzzard’s eye drew me closer, aswagger with his own drama, “I am making a ruined film.  Secret–don’t breath. Lost film! I am making a legend.  It is like the great emperor who had done all on earth that any man could.  And he saw there was one last, sublime achievement–he designed and built a ruined city.”

Ruined cities strike me as an excellent metaphor for most Westerns.  Of course the American west was settled, developed some would argue far more than it should have been, but the ruined city is a much better metaphor for the Western than Los Angeles or even Santa Fe.  The ghost town.  The ruined boom town.  Planned as great cities now just shadows of what they once were, some not even shadows.

Does any of this rambling “review” make sense?  Did the book itself?  Does it have to?

Since it’s not a beautiful girl, I guess it does.  While I didn’t come away from Silver Light loving it, I did have a very good time.  The idea of mixing fictional characters with their “real life” counterparts fascinates me.  According to the books back flap, the author has done something similar with American film noir in his earlier novel Suspects.  As much as I enjoy a good western, what I really love is film noir.  So even though I’d have to say Silver Light didn’t quite hit the mark, I’ll be reading Suspects sometime soon.

2 thoughts on “Silver Light by David Thomson

  1. This was interesting. I had heard of Suspects by Thomson but not this book. I was not sure I would like Suspects since I am not that knowledgeable about films, but I would like to try one of them sometime and see.

    1. I think Silver Light would still be as enjoyable a read without knowing as much about movie westerns as I do. There is an appendix that lists most of the references; they’re a fun list, worth checking out on wikipedia.

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