When John Wayne spoke, there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it.
That’s Joan Didion, in a 1965 essay called John Wayne: A Love Song, in which she confesses that “although the men I have known have had many virtues…they have never been John Wayne.” They have not – how could they have? – lived up to that standard of masculinity set for her at the age of eight when she first saw Wayne in War of the Wildcats.
Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape is about the child perceiving John Wayne’s sexual authority and figuring out what to do about it. The child is a thirteen-year-old immigrant from Earth, relocated with her father and younger brothers to a rickety frontier settlement on the Planet of the Archbuilders. Her dad is an earnest liberal, keen on reaching out to the planet’s natives, the remnants of a once-mighty race who now dwell in idleness among the ruins of their civilisation.
John Wayne appears in the character of the first settler in the valley, who has a far more ambivalent relationship to the natives. He is the only one who speaks their language, understands their customs, even participates in their rituals. But he has contempt for them, and he fears being corrupted by them. He is
tormented and tormenting. His fury is righteous and ugly – resentment worn as a fetish. It isolates him in every scene. It isolates him from you, watching, even as his charisma wrenches you closer, into an alliance, a response that’s almost sexual.
That’s Lethem writing (in his 2005 essay collection The Disappointment Artist) about John Wayne’s character in The Searchers, which he has acknowledged as the inspiration for his novel. Girl In Landscape is the The Searchers inverted, told from the point-of-view of the young girl rather than the cowboy antihero. But Lethem has softened and decomplicated the story for the comfort of modern readers. His natives are benign, meditative pacifists, rather than the murderous Comanches of the original, making the settlers’ terror of their sexuality seem paranoid and ludicrous.
Eventually, the young girl stands up to the cowboy, and although her motives are laudable, her methods are extremely dicey. In the final chapter we see the beginnings of a friendlier, stabler, more matriarchal society – the antagonistic male forces have been banished, at least temporarily, and order reigns. It’s a satisfying conclusion for modern readers, because we’re not really comfortable having John Wayne around – not the women, who (despite their lingering girlish ideals of maleness) aren’t eager to be tossed over his shoulder and carried off like chattel; not the other men who find themselves feeling shrunken and irrelevant in his presence. But of course, it’s convenient to banish John Wayne, when there are no Comanches around.