"Go back and fill in the genres." That was Mary McCarthy's advice, a few decades ago, for young writers. What she meant was that the rich but crude veins of American genre fiction -- detective stories, westerns, horror stories -- had been around long enough to be refined for a generation of readers now familiar with their conventions. Robert Coover might have heard McCarthy: For nearly a quarter of a century he's been "filling in" all kinds of genres, from the murder mystery ("Gerald's Party") to the baseball novel ("The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop.") to fairy tales ("Briar Rose," "Pinoccchio In Venice"). With "Ghost Town," Coover has now metafictionized the western -- or, if you like, created the first phantasmagorical western.
Actually, "Ghost Town" isn't so much a western as a novel about westerns. A "forlorn horseman on the desert plain" approaches a small town that, no matter how hard he rides, keeps receding into the horizon. Finally he approaches the town from behind -- not only does he reach it, the town rolls in under his horse, as if in greeting. Like a town in a sci-fi movie (in fact, like the city in this year's cult film "Dark City"), the town is constantly changing -- after a gunfight or bank robbery the buildings shift, rearrange, metamorphose. So does our hero, constantly changing from outlaw to sheriff and back again. The violence in "Ghost Town" is as horrifically real as in Cormac McCarthy's novels, and the flat, natural descriptions leave nothing to the imagination: "The one-eared man's head splits with a pop as a clay bowl might and his brains ooze out like spilled oatmeal." But no one is killed in "Ghost Town," or rather no one stays dead. (They don't even stay jailed for long. Our hero finds that the bars in a jail where he is held prisoner are made of a wood he could have easily punched out.) Like familiar actors who die in one western film only to pop up in another, the characters in Coover's novel get shot, stabbed and hanged, only to reappear in different guises.
Coover's concern is with the mythology of the western, but your reaction to "Ghost Town" is less likely to hinge on your feelings about westerns than about metafiction in general. There are those who find the works of William Gaddis, William Gass, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Hawkes and others of this group of middle-aged Northern and Midwestern WASPs to be more fun to discuss as theory than to read, and there's no denying that Coover shares their bias for self-conscious technique over content and narrative. Coover, though, possesses gifts associated with traditional fiction. For one thing, he's got an ear for American idiom utterly lacking in the writers he's often grouped with. "Shet yer lip," says a character in "Ghost Town" to another, "fore I dissect yer innards and make sausages outa em for my dawg's breakfast." And "You pestiferous jugheaded scrag." And "The scrofulous varmint is broke the laws and he's gotta pay fer it." This, as someone in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" says, is authentic frontier gibberish. It's also funny, which is another significant way Coover's work differs from that of his contemporaries.
You can't read "Ghost Town" without conjuring up the ghosts of a thousand old westerns, and you may not be able to see westerns in the future without thinking of this novel. Robert Coover has filled up the genre very well.