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Books: Into the West

Rudolph Wurlitzer Reimagines the Frontier in 'The Drop Edge of Yonder'

By JEFFREY A. TRACHTENBERG
April 12, 2008

Rudolph Wurlitzer's funny, inquisitive fifth novel, the newly published "The Drop Edge of Yonder," asks readers to re-examine their ideas of the Western frontier and personal freedom. Much like such writers as Tom Franklin ("Hell at the Breech"), and Cormac McCarthy ("No Country for Old Men"), Mr. Wurlitzer shares a taste for rowdy behavior, poker, drinking, gunfire and other forms of mayhem.

This is Mr. Wurlitzer's first novel since "Slow Fade," a work about an aging director, was published in 1984. The author, a member of the Wurlitzer family that once manufactured musical instruments, says his experience of living in the West helped shape his new book. "I was always interested in the idea of the frontier and what it meant and what the metaphor was," says Mr. Wurlitzer, 70 years old. "There is an ongoing theme in American history in terms of how this country got settled that interested me."

In addition to writing a much-lauded travel memoir "Hard Travel to Sacred Places," Mr. Wurlitzer carved out a career as a Hollywood screenwriter. His credits include co-writing 1993's "Little Buddha," directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and scripting 1973's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," directed by Sam Peckinpah. According to the Los Angeles Times, the late Mr. Peckinpah described that movie as the best he ever made.

"That was a great experience," says Mr. Wurlitzer. "Sam influenced some scenes for the better, but it was a relatively autonomous experience. I could explore the language of the West, the vernacular on the margins of culture."

Mr. Wurlitzer lives in Hudson, N.Y., with his wife, the artist Lynn Davis, who shot the cover photograph for "The Drop Edge of Yonder." Having that input is one reason he chose to be published by Two Dollar Radio, a small literary house. "I'm done sublimating myself to others," he says.

Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at jeffrey.trachtenberg@wsj.com