It’s been more than half a century since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—the last time John Ford put John Wayne in a cowboy hat on-screen. By now, that screen moment has become part of a strain of nearly legendary American iconography: at one time, this is what it meant to be a prime American man, for better or worse. Nancy Schoenberger’s book, a brilliant double portrait of Wayne and Ford (Nan A. Talese, $27.95) and the movies they made together, wipes the grease off that image to reveal values more nuanced than generally assumed. She illuminates how men with such performative love for the mid-century patriotism as these two could create movies as conflicted about blinkered American militarism as Fort Apache. How they maintained personas that place male prowess so consistently front-and-center and could also give us loving portraits of camaraderie among “feminized” men, whose collective bluster naturally complements delicate underlying virtues. It’s telling that Schoenberger highlights the history of female writers who find what sets Wayne and Ford apart, from Joan Didion to Molly Haskell to the author herself. With a gentle force that matches her subjects’, she separates them from ossified tradition and demonstrates a new way of writing them into an ever-changing American story.
Encircling has a classic set-up—a man has lost his memory, and people who’ve known him well are helping patch the holes in his identity—but the real attraction is the execution. The book comes in three parts, each divided between the letters David’s erstwhile loved ones use to tell him of his past and the fraught days in their own lives that precede their discovery of his condition. They inevitably wrap their present-day troubles around their reminiscences, giving portraits that reveal themselves as much as David. Tiller’s the kind of writer whose overflow of moment-to-moment details feels abnormally vivid, quickening instead of halting the pace. Just as enticing: there’s more to come—this begins a trilogy, each entry promising even more shades to David’s life.