Themes and Meanings
Bausch’s story is about the nature of storytelling. The narrator is a professional storyteller who has been telling the story of Shane for most of his eighty years, and now decides to confess that his story was not true. He tells the real story, which is one of the disillusionment not only of love—his mother and Shane have declined into grotesque versions of their former selves—but also of Joey’s love for the romance of the Old West, where men like the noble Shane ride alone, righting wrongs through violence. The narrator’s true story demythologizes Shane’s heroics and replaces them with the sordidness of human motive and the truth of violence.
Bausch’s story gains its power from playing the reader’s familiarity with the film Shane against these belated but damning details: Joey is a twenty-one-year-old drunkard; his mother is senile, deaf, and convinced that entropy and decline are everywhere. Even the land for which the heroic settlers fought turns out to be unsuited for farming, good only for cattle grazing. The bad guys in the film, the cattlemen, were right. Shane has devolved into an impoverished bounty hunter. Only Bagley, the seedy preacher, is marked by energy, and his talent is words. Joey says that Bagley’s sentences line up “one after the other, perfectly symmetrical and organized as any written speech.” Bagley is also a corrector of prior texts: He hears Joey’s tale of Shane in the saloon that was seen in the film but tells Joey he is exaggerating. When the shots of the final gunfight outside the barn are finally silent, Joey sees that Bagley was right, that his childhood memory of Shane was really false: “The clearest memory of my life was a thing I made up in my head.” “Old West” probes the nature of tale-telling while it also tells a powerful tale. If it deflates the myth of Shane as well as other versions of the cult of male violence in the Old West, it builds a new version of Shane that is as symmetrical and organized as any written speech, to end with Bagley’s words, which seem more lasting than Shane’s gun skills.