Thirty years of my working life were spent as rabbi of a large congregation across the road from Lord's. Unsurprisingly, my chief relaxation was cricket, closely followed by cowboy films. I reckoned that on either subject I was the most knowledgeable person in Anglo-Jewry, until I met a pillar of the Nottingham Jewish community who had been something big with the National Coal Board and had seen Larwood and Voce plain. Then in my own congregation I discovered Clive Sinclair, like me weaned on 1950s Westerns and indelibly marked by them, but with an uncanny recall for their dialogue and mise en scene far beyond my own.
There can be no doubting the rigid sense of right and wrong implanted by fables in which the goodies wear white hats, the baddies black ones, and a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Forget about Hannibal Lecter. For the personification of screen evil, nothing can beat Jack Palance in Shane, dressed in black and loping into town on an equally vicious-looking nag. Sinclair and his rabbi learnt their morality the hard way, on the celluloid frontier.
After a dozen novels and short-story collections that scandalised the bourgeoisie of Hendon and Golders Green, Sinclair has now gone in search of his inner cowboy, journeying across the Old West in a quest for the truth behind iconic figures such as Wyatt Earp, George Custer, the James brothers, Wild Bill Hickok, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, et al. In real life, Sinclair looks like the stereotypical diaspora Jew, with three thousand years of suffering etched on his features and the expression, in his own words, of "a man who... has toothache". But in the melange of fact, fiction and lubricious wish-fulfilment that makes up True Tales..., Peppercorn and Saltzman – the author's alter id and ego - are irresistible to women. From Mercy Sweetbriar, runner-up in the "Appearance, Personality and Photogenics" category of South Dakota's Miss Rodeo contest, to gorgeous Mrs Twentyman, kidnap victim of Billy the Kid's impersonator at Fort Sumner, the flowers of American pulchritude fall for the two Jewish smartasses from north-west London. In yer dreams, Clive.
The fairytale ending is a marriage in a synagogue that is identifiably mine, from a wedding liturgy that is identifiably mine, but performed by a rabbi who irritatingly is not me. But of course all this flimflam is a device to get the action out to Deadwood, Tombstone, Fort Laramie and the Little Big Horn. Sinclair has a sharp eye for the beauty of the landscape, and gives a moving description of Monument Valley, used by John Ford as the backdrop for many of his greatest Westerns.
And he has a sharp ear for the rhythms of American English, the common language dividing us. Says a sun-dried waitress at Santa Clarita's Garden Inn: "I come to work to get away from home. My tragedy is that work's shit too." There are some good if slightly passé jokes about post-modernism and feminism, and Sinclair is spot-on in conjuring academic rivalries.
Ultimately, he is forced to acknowledge what we know anyway; that it is no longer possible to unravel Wild West truth from legend. Was Josephine Marcus Earp, Wyatt's Jewish wife for 50 years, a Gilbert and Sullivan soubrette, as she claimed, or – more likely – a saloon prostitute? Did Pat Garrett really shoot Billy the Kid, or a man named Barlow? Does it matter? At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the newspaper editor instructs "Print the legend". For Sinclair and others who grew up in the heyday of the Hollywood Western and TV series, that legend remains as evocative as any about the Garden of Eden or the Knights of the Round Table.
David J Goldberg is Emeritus Rabbi of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, LondonReuse content