Why do you pick up one book and not another? Sometimes, it’s because you’ve read previous books by the author and liked them (or seen something in them, potential, say). Sometimes – yes, we know – it might be the cover. Sometimes, it’s a recommendation. Sometimes, you might hear the book being discussed on Radio 4 or maybe you pick something up, for some more subconscious reason, in a bookshop. Sometimes, it can be as simple as a cover quote from someone interesting (I’m reading a book called The Black Snow at the moment on the basis of a Daniel Woodrell cover quote – sometimes that is all it takes). The converse also applies. Take A Million Ways to Die in the West. Seth MacFarlane can be a pretty divisive character. For everyone I know who enjoyed the movie Ted for example, I know someone who regards the film with outrageous hostility. For everyone who thought he did a good job of hosting the Oscars, I know there are those who found him offensive or just plain not funny. I think to some people Seth MacFarlane is the American Ricky Gervais. Even if you find him funny you might not entirely embrace the fact that the book comes at you as Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West. MacFarlane’s. As if hundreds of years of title / author name are not quite good enough for MacFarlane. But still.
Obviously A Million Ways to Die in the West is a movie. You can see the trailer any time you like. In fact that’s probably another good way to determine whether this is a book you would like to read (because having read the book, you can see that it isn’t one of those cases of book and film diverging in any major way, like – say – the graphic novel version of Darren Arronofsky’s The Fountain did from the finished film). If you chuckle at the trailer, you will chuckle at the book. Another couple of points worth getting into regarding Cormac McCarthy’s The Counsellor and Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. Where The Counsellor was a halfway house (ie not a new book proper, just a screenplay), A Million Ways to Die in the West is a novel. Why Seth MacFarlane chose to write a novel as well as make a film, I don’t know. Maybe the novel came first a long time ago. That isn’t to say that Seth MacFarlane is anything like Cormac McCarthy. The two are as different as can be. But if you are going to get a book released alongside a film, then better the book is a book that feels like a book, as opposed to a screenplay or – worse – a novelisation. So in some ways MacFarlane is better than Cormac McCarthy. I guess. Second, as regards The Sisters Brothers – in some respects, we’ve already had one really great western comedy this decade. If you’ve read the DeWitt, you might think – do I need to read this? I’d say yes. It’s quite a different fish. Dumber in some respects (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as far as comedy is concerned – A Million Ways to Die in the West has a lot in common with Blazing Saddles) but also more knowing. Knowing is also good.
So. A Million Ways to Die in the West takes its title from the fact that our nervy central protagonist, mild mannered sheep farmer Albert Stark feels like everything in the old West can kill you (and there are lots of knowing wink wink type jokes about the age in which these people live) – helped in no small way by the local doctor, the quackiest of quacks who deals with small injuries by having birds peck blood off and who operates with dirty hands and cats bounding about the place. We first meet Albert as he wriggles out of a high noon style showdown to the chagrin of his girlfriend who promptly dumps him for the local moustache barber (moustaches are a big thing in the old west). Heartbroken, he tries to find solace in other women (including a great scene involving the young daughter of a local farmer) but to no avail. Eventually he befriends a new arrival in town who teaches him to shoot and who also just happens to be the wife of a terrible outlaw. You can probably see where that leads him.
It’s a light read, make no mistake about that, so you’ll probably read it in a single afternoon – but over the course of that single afternoon (provided you get as far as wanting to pick up the book, which I do understand some of you might not want to) you’ll find much to amuse you. Albert’s best friend Edward for example. His girlfriend (played by Sarah Silverman in the movie) is a whore who takes real pride in her work (Edward often comes to the brothel at the end of the day to pick her up and so hears her exclaiming loudly and profanely) – but who refuses to consummate their own relationship until they are wed. The climax of the book (if I can move to talking about the climax of a book right after talking about an amusing sex worker) felt a teensy bit hurried (and an extended drug trip didn’t feel altogether necessary), but all things considered, this reader had a good old time. If I can say ‘you could do a lot worse’ without damning things with faint praise, then I’d do it.
Any Cop?: Provided you enter into things knowing what you are getting, A Million Ways to Die in the West is fun.