Best books ... chosen by Brady Udall

Brady Udall’s new novel, The Lonely Polygamist, charts the longings of a Mormon contractor with four wives. Below, the author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint names his six favorite books about the American West.

Roughing It by Mark Twain (Signet, $7). This wide-eyed account of prospecting, newspaper reporting, and general “vagabondizing” out West is so full of droll observations and hilarious asides you’ll find yourself laughing on every page. (“Sagebrush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure.”) Roughing It depicts the woolly, wild West of legend, and with it Twain helped ensure that that legend was born.

Fools Crow by James Welch (Penguin, $16). A work of great power and imagination that illuminates, like no other book has, early Native American culture and its looming demise.

American Ground Zero by Carole Gallagher (MIT Press, $65). A documentary account of the nuclear war waged by the American government, through its weapons-testing program, against its own people. If Gallagher’s gorgeously devastating photos of downwinders and atomic veterans don’t break your heart, the interviews and personal accounts will. I don’t quite know how a story so full of horror could be told with such simple grace, compassion, and courage.

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Bring Your Legs With You by Darrell Spencer (Univ. of Pittsburgh, $25). The urban heart of the West is Las Vegas, and there is no better depiction of the city’s hustlers, dreamers, gamblers, talkers, drifters, and down-and-outers than this brilliant and unsparing book of linked short stories.

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams (Vintage, $16). Joy Williams casts her gimlet eye on the New West, the modern and weird West, the West of burned-out trailer parks, New Age communes, and homogenous subdivisions. There is an apocalyptic air to the proceedings that makes every image, every character, every throwaway bit of dialogue wonderfully menacing and strange. Williams is a prose stylist without compare, and in this book she is at the top of her game.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (Pocket, $8). Part literary epic, part dime-store cowboy novel, this is the granddaddy of Western sagas. And not only that—it spawned the best mini-series ever to show up on television.

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