“As a boy growing up in England, I loved Westerns,” says Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for such classics as The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Though known for his searing evocations of England and its way of life, Ishiguro is most concerned with humanity’s uniting forces (even when his protagonist happens to be a robot, as is the case in his latest novel, Klara and the Sun, out this week from Knopf). Hence this British writer’s unlikely affinity for books in the Western genre, which, in Ishiguro’s late teens, “went from escapist entertainment to being part of an anguished debate about America’s history and values, about genocide and race, about law and order, about what and how a nation should remember”—a rich subject which has gone largely unexplored by literary novelists. “But on the occasions when they have done so, the results have often been stunning,” he says. Here, four Western novels Ishiguro calls “important contemporary classics. And also great reads.”
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
Magnificent, lyrical, blood-soaked sentences that sound biblical and meander across half a page or more. A dark vision not just of the conquering of the American West but of the violent essence of our species.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
As wide-screen and epic as a movie by John Ford or Howard Hawks. A sweeping story of a cattle drive and internal migration. A moving portrait of male friendship. Often heartwarming, sometimes shockingly unsentimental in depictions of prejudice and savagery.
True Grit, by Charles Portis
A riveting revenge story set in the uneasy post–Civil War years, this novel has had two screen adaptations, dominated, respectively, by John Wayne and Jeff Bridges. The book, though, is dominated by its first-person voice—that of a lonely, hard-as-nails, middle-aged woman looking back to a turning-point episode when she was 14 years old. Hers is one of the finest—and funniest—first-person voices I’ve come across in contemporary fiction.
Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry
An astonishing first-person performance of a different sort—a high-wire virtuoso mix of Irish and frontier vernacular. Love and war, gender fluidity, an outsider’s piercing take on the foundations of modern America. Near-surreal violence, with moments of great tenderness.