David James Duncan’s Contemporary Western

Cover art for the book Sun House by David James Duncan

There are certain novels written over the last fifty or sixty years that represent a particular zeitgeist in the US. Written mostly by authors located in North America’s West while also located there, these works tend to reject the corporatization of the lands West of the Missouri River while featuring humans fighting back against that corporatization. These tales celebrate the open wildness, the deserts, the forests and the canyons of the purple sage. The writers describe majestic forests that seem to never end and mountains with peaks that pierce the heavens. They reflect on the wounds upon these treasures inflicted by men as they try to domesticate the land. I say men instead of humanity intentionally; I believe these authors do so, too. Women are often introduced as somehow more spiritual, more in touch with mother earth. Whether this portrayal is accurate or not in real life, its importance to the meaning of these fictions is immeasurable. Books by Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, Louise Erdrich, Edward Abbey and David James Duncan are six authors that come quickly to mind when considering this genre.

If this genre exists (and for the duration of this review, it does), then the most recent addition to it is David James Duncan’s latest epic, titled Sun House. It is a tale of a group of individuals based out of Portland, Oregon and their quest for a more just and spiritual existence in a world headed towards ecological and economic disaster is simultaneously charming, humorous, heartfelt and disheartening, if only because the reader realizes the realization of their quest requires money beyond the means of many of us who will read this fiction. In other words, this novel is a subtly insistent critique of capitalism and its cancerous conceit that defines too much of our relationship with the earth and each other.

Similar to Duncan’s other novels The River Why and The Brothers K, Sun House blends a well-told and fairly complex plotline with a philosophical exposition that draws from spiritual and other sources ranging from Meister Eckhart to the Upanishads; and the writings of the Beguines to a homegrown somewhat gnostic Catholicism labeled Dumpster Catholicism in the text. Of course, the latter is fictional, but that doesn’t mean it should be.

There are politics, too. From a contrived by the right-wing news industry controversy over a country song to a long, but never-boring diatribe against the cattle industry, the resort industry and agribusiness, among other targets. Likewise, a long, but never boring celebration of the possibilities of human existence when the essence of love is its guiding principle and inspiration..

Some might find the spiritual and philosophical musings tedious. Others might consider them the best part of the book. As for me, both are true. Mostly and most importantly, it is the story told in these hundreds of pages that is what matters. It is a story that is charming, often fantastic, believable enough, and told with wit and such heart this reader never wanted it to end.

Sun House blends mysticism east and west, Buddhists, and Catholic women tossed from the holy mother church: cowboys, millionaires, and a houseless savant of spiritual existence. It is populated with unbelievably believable characters that include a theater director of Shakespearean avant-garde who brings his dog everywhere he goes concealed in a specially made case that looks like a cello case. Duncan’s clever and inspired writing develops each of these characters into a world that blends their individual souls into a community that becomes considerably more than their personal beings. There’s anti-corporate mischief and a cherry 1954 Chevy truck. Love, distress, kids and lust in a fucked up world compounded by hopes that Gaia will guide the humans who don’t wish to participate in killing the earth.

This novel is what might colloquially be called a yarn. Like the best-told folk tales in every culture, the story is an adventure, a comedy and what could be called a teaching moment. Indeed, a moment we can all learn from. Not everyone will appreciate Sun House but those that do will do so for a very long time.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com