The Loner is the first book in the long-running Edge series by George G. Gilman (Terry Harknett). From 1972 to 1989, Josiah "Edge" Hedge shot, stabbed, slashed and generally mayhemmed n' mayhacked his way through an astonishing 61 volumes of Western adventure. (63 if you count the two cross-overs with Gilman's other character, the equally destructive Adam Steele).
Edge is billed as a "new kind of Western hero" - a self-consciously revisionist approach to the John Ford / Zane Grey tradition. The traditional Western featured a chivalric, blue-eyed knight errant - forced reluctantly into battle, kind to women and babies, combining "aww shucks" Americana and apple pie heroism. In contrast, Edge, a whiskey-fueled engine of mean, is a studied act of rebellion.
As far as origin stories go, the plot of The Loner isn't atypical. Captain Josiah Hedge returns from the Civil War to find his brother murdered at the hands of renegade soldiers. Vowing revenge, "Edge" (a malapropism that quickly sticks) travels from Iowa to Arizona in search of the killers.
The story's set-piece action sequences are equally familiar: a wagon train attacked by Indians, a dynamite-driven jailbreak, an outlaw hideout in a bandit cave. But Mr. Gilman breaks from tradition by populating his West with a legion of shameless villains. There are no innocents in Edge's world, including the man himself.
Edge's rebellion starts at birth. Captain Josiah Hedge isn't even white. The son of a Swedish mother and Mexican father, Edge identifies more with the latter - possibly because he's constantly labelled by the casual racism that permeates the "old West". In The Loner, the Hispanic population is always present and always mistreated, seen not as second-class citizens, but a sort of inhuman slave race with a completely different biology (see: The Way of Kings). Edge, in his role as anti-hero, cozies up to the reader by enacting savage revenge on the book's large population of racists.
Edge is also decidedly unsporting. He's not a coward (far from it), but he's certainly not the pistols-at-noon type. Instead, he totes around a rifle (for long distance sniping) and a razor (for close-up hacking). He knows how to bide his time and coolly pick his fights. There's one brief moment where Edge loses his temper when faced with his brother's killer, but even with that sort of provocation, he quickly reins himself in.
However, Edge is exactly the sort of "hero" that his land deserves. He's the great leveller - distributing justice to bank robbers and corrupt sherriffs alike. Bandits, con men and juvenile thugs are sliced up without a second thought. Intentionally or not, Edge avoids adding innocent deputies to his body count - his shots always seem to "pull wide" when they're aimed at those without blood on their hands.
Not that Edge is ever seeking to be a lawman - Mr. Gilman very deliberately ensures that Edge is always "driven" to (anti-)heroism for purely selfish reasons. Edge kills two murderous tricksters not because they're sleazy conmen, but because he wants to steal their clothes. Edge wipes out a pack of bank robbers because he needs their horses. Edge breaks up a stagecoach robbery because the robbers foolishly take a shot at him. Edge becomes a deputy because that way he picks up a cash bonus for catching his brother's killers - something he'll be doing anyway. On the whole, Edge is a force for good but not an agent of it.
Mr. Gilman excels at maintaining the balance between nihilistic destruction and heroic progression. Edge is undeniably a cold bastard (Mr. Gilman reminds the reader of this at regular intervals) and he does awful things in bone-curdling ways. However, he's not vicious or vindictive - and Mr. Gilman ensures that, by hook or by crook, Edge is only unleashed on those that merit his special attentions. If Mr. Gilman manages to corral Edge on the side of the angels for another 62 books without ever seeming heavy-handed, his series should be considered a masterpiece of literary finagling. In The Loner, at least, he pulls it off.
The nihilism/heroism debate is, of course, something of great interest to the fantasy community. Both genres, Westerns and fantasy, have a core tradition of morally-righteous, vaguely Objectivist quests featuring reluctantly heroic, plowshares-to-swords superhumans in battle with the Other. Similarly, both genres also have a strong line of revisionist texts that rely on more ambiguous settings, ethically ambivalent lessons and anti-heroic characters.
Even in the use of race, the two genres wrestle with similar issues. If fantasy tries sleight-of-hand with awkward analogues, Westerns put their cards on the table. Certainly this doesn't mean that Westerns are more praiseworthy in their reflection of minority characters, simply that, whatever stance a Western takes, it is forced to be more overt about it. Regarding gender and sexuality, both genres come from a long, unwavering line of heteronormative males rescuing implausibly-corseted females from sexual menace. If the two genres differ in any way, it is that Westerns have always had both maidens and whores. The discovery (and inclusion) of prostitutes is a more recent trend in "gritty" fantasy.
The critical distinction between the two genres is that, judging by The Loner, the revisionist evolution in Westerns took place forty years ago - twenty-five years before George R.R. Martin elevated a similar movement to the mainstream of the fantasy genre.* Simply put, this means fantasy isn't the first to wrestle with the resulting growing pains. For example, Mr. Gilman's The Loner isn't a particularly great work, but it is a well-designed instance of how an author can craftily use circumstance to keep an anti-hero from outright villainy - a case study in making a "bad guy" into an empathetic protagonist. Even if Westerns didn't get it "right", it means that fantasy writers (and editors and publishers and critics) have a wealth of existing materials to draw upon and from which to learn.
*This is a shamelessly fragile claim - the sort of "revisionist" fantasy described above has been lurking around for ages. However, I do believe that the sales success of GRRM moved it from the genre's periphery to its core and encouraged publishers to seek out more "gritty" fantasy works. Similarly, A Song of Ice and Fire's influence on contemporary fantasy writers is taken from granted at this point, perhaps a positive side effect of its leisurely progress.