The Swansong of Wilbur McCrum

Written by Bronia Kita
Review by Cecelia Holland

Picaresque novels about the Old West abound, and with good reason: the outlandish adventures and unlikely escapades of the genre play wonderfully against the backdrop of dusty cowtowns, good-natured whores, evil sheriffs, and lots of guns going off. The Swansong of Wilbur McCrum mines this material for all it’s worth. Wilbur, a classic Western antihero who tends to faint at the first sign of danger, nonetheless gets a reputation as a fearsome bad guy. In real life, he’s desperately trying to recover a lost love; when she turns up as a mummy in a circus he’s equally desperate to get her properly buried.

In the course of this, he falls down a well, witnesses a certain gunfight in Tombstone, meets Jesse James, robs banks, works for an Elmer Gantry-like preacher, survives into the 20th century, and rides in a model T Ford. Kita couches all this in a running first-person narrative that alternates between present and past tense and includes so much use of the word “iffen” I began to clench my teeth at it. The problem with this kind of book is its ancestry; Little Big Man is still the standard, and poor Wilbur is neither funny enough nor profound enough to keep that company. It isn’t helped by the recent revival of True Grit either.