A twisted take

Local author looks west for dark first novel

By Tim Walker

Photo: Local author Ryan Ireland has always had a soft spot for western themes

When you think of writers penning intellectual novels, books that offer imaginative as well as visceral thrills, you rarely think of books published in the Western genre. Posses and cattle drives? Absolutely. Hard-bitten sheriffs facing whiskey-swilling outlaws at high noon on a dusty street? Sure. Stories that draw comparisons to works by Nobel Prize-winning magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago? Not so much.

First-time novelist Ryan Ireland, however, has done exactly that.

“Beyond the Horizon,” Ireland’s first published novel, was released on April 14 and is drawing high praise from critics. “Intellectual in theme, literary in execution: think Gabriel Garcia Marquez reimagining ‘Little Big Man,’” Kirkus Reviews says of the novel. Tom Andes writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Attempting to engage the mythology of the West as well as of the western itself, Ireland aims high, and thanks to no small amount of vision, talent and audacity, his novel succeeds on nearly every level.”

For decades, western novels have been derided as cheap popular fiction—predictable plots, thin characterization, slim paperbacks to be read in an afternoon, digested and forgotten about by evening. In doing so, readers have consigned a huge, symbolic chunk of our country’s history to the artistic dustbin, cheating themselves in the process. By contrast, in film the western is a revered genre, and many of our country’s most beloved directors—Clint Eastwood, John Ford, even Quentin Tarantino—have used the conventions of the Old West to tell heart-rending, mythic and often brutally violent tales which illuminate and examine the origins of our national soul. The Great Frontier. The Gold Rush. “Go West, Young Man.”

Ryan Ireland has dipped his pen into the dark ink of our frontier past, taken these themes and has written his first novel, a book which he describes as a “Gothic anti-Western,” a book which is so many things: a shocking story of violence and retribution, a tale of loss, obsession and pursuit which winds its way through a historic America that is—almost—unrecognizable in its brutality.

The dark-hued story begins with a man and a woman living in a primitive shack, the two of them alone together on the American frontier. She is pregnant with another man’s child, and the two of them are surprised one day when a stranger arrives at their homestead, injured and needing shelter. The woman is hesitant to accept the stranger into their home, though she bandages his wounds. The man is more easily persuaded, ultimately not to his credit.

The stranger, after winning the man’s trust, convinces the man to leave the shack and travel to Fort James to register the expected baby as his own, lest the government take the child away. Then he kills the woman and her unborn child and sets off in pursuit of the man. From this simple, violent beginning, the novel takes off in dark and unexpected directions. We learn of the man’s childhood as a boy with his father, working on a ship where men survived by cannibalizing their shipmates, and the story keeps the reader guessing as Indian chiefs, epic battles and orchestrated showdowns propel the book toward a mesmerizing conclusion.

“I was born in Huber Heights,” Mr. Ireland says, “Went to Carroll High School and I’ve stayed local ever since. I went to Wright State University, and I’m now the publicity and marketing officer at the Greene County Public Library, and a strong advocate for public libraries across the country.”

When asked if he’d always been a fan of the western genre, Ireland replies, “Yes, ever since I can remember. That started when I was a kid, going out west. We had a pop-up camper and a conversion van, and we headed out there every summer from the time I was born until I was about 12. I really loved the landscape, and as I got older I started getting involved in studying up on western lore and I really liked outlaws.”

“When I got to college,” he continues, “One of my staples on the weekends was the video rental store. I hadn’t discovered libraries yet and I loved picking up westerns—mostly Clint Eastwood type of westerns. When my wife and I were first dating, she asked ‘What do you do on the holidays?’ and I had a job where I always worked on Christmas, so I told her that when I got home from work I watched ‘The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly’ every year. She said, ‘You’re kidding… that can’t be your Christmas tradition.’ Of course, now we have kids, so we watch ‘Rudolph.’

“But I still try to sneak in a bit of ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,’” he says with a laugh.

Beyond the Horizon is available on amazon.com. For more information, please visit ryangireland.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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