Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man: The New Old West

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Painting by Journie Kirdain

“With a novelist’s fine gifts for character and scene, a historian’s depth of perspective, and a local’s intimate knowledge and love, Frank Bergon leads us through California’s Big Valley, where the past lies entwined with the present and every critical tension in modern America plays out in its most distilled form.” 

Miriam Horn, author of Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland

“Novelist and critic Frank Bergon paints a remarkable portrait of life in California’s Great Central Valley through his loving sketches of rural and small-town Westerners.  Biographies from  this racially and ethnically diverse agricultural community reveal what it means to be part of the contemporary American West, where the mythic Old West meet twenty-first-century realities.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University, author of Colored People: A Memoir

 Frank Bergon’s astonishing personal portrayals of people in California’s San Joaquin Valley reveal a country where the culture of a vanishing West lives on in many twenty-first century Westerners, despite the radical technological transformations around them. All are immigrants, migrants, their children, or grandchildren whose lives intertwine with the author’s, including several races and ethnicities: Chicanos, Mexicans, African Americans, Italians, Asians, Native Americans, Scots-Irish descendants of Steinbeck’s Okies, and Basques of the author’s own heritage.

Bergon creates a powerful portrayal of rural and small-town Westerners who often see themselves as part of a region and a way of life most Americans aren’t aware of or don’t understand, their voices unheard, their stories untold. In these essays, myriad voices from the diverse heritage of the San Joaquin Valley help us understand the complexities of today’s rural West, where Old West values intersect with New West realities. This is the West (and America today)—a region in conflict with itself.

“With the perspective and compassion of a long-gone native son, Frank Bergon returns to his boyhood home in California’s San Joaquin Valley to understand the contemporary West.  He introduces us to anti-government ranchers, disappointed writers, successful physicians, and enterprising farmers.  We meet his high school buddy Fred Franzia, who went on to create the best-selling wine of all time, and an old friend Darrell Winfield, who became the iconic Marlboro man.  Bergon’s beautifully drawn portraits capture a slice of the twenty-first-century West where old values are tightly held, idiosyncrasies are gently endured, and change is acknowledged, if not always embraced.”

Martha A. Sandweiss, Professor of History, Princeton University, author of Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

“The title, Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man, captures Frank Bergon’s tone—a kind of ‘Western-serious’ that allows for whimsy and wry humor. Bergon makes even abstract issues so specific they seem visceral. Racism, poverty, education, environmental change, land management, corporate finance, water rights, and isolation have been with us always, and have deeply affected life in the American West, but now they carry a new urgency. All of the characters who vividly live in these essays are immigrants/migrants of one sort or another. Read separately, each of the essays here succeeds on its own terms, each is complete and fully realized, but read together in sequence they gain a collective momentum that makes the whole greater than its beautifully moving parts. What Bergon draws from his many trips back to the place where his roots remain is not limited to the American West but illumines major issues confronting our entire country. I wish everyone in the country would read this haunting collection of essays.”

—Allen Wier, author of Tehano: A Novel

“No one grasps the astonishing diversity of the American West better than Frank Bergon.  Partly it’s a matter of simple luck, growing up in California’s San Joaquin valley.  But more important is his deft ability to navigate the blistering tensions of Old West and New, with stalwart individualism pitched against government regulations that encroach ever more insistently.  In a series of stunning portraits of friends caught up in that tension—male and female, African- and Korean-American, Arapaho and Chukchansi, Basque and Anglo ranchers—Bergon weaves a Brueghel-like tapestry of today’s rural West.  And he does so in prose insightful, judicious, even amusing—as crisply restrained and wryly revealing as the figures it describes.  Once started, I dare you (Western style) to try to put this book down!”

Lee Clark Mitchell, author of Late Westerns: The Persistence of a Genre

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“In 12 prose portraits of people and place, western novelist and historian Frank Bergon portrays the marriage of Old West spirit with New West realities . . . a way of life and culture he believes to be misunderstood and misreported . . . Bergon sets this record straight with close-up stories of people with whom he grew up and befriended in the San Joaquin Valley, homeland of his own Basque progenitors.”— Booklist

 A tour of the interior West worth taking.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This eclectic, wide-ranging collection of essays on the diverse population and colorful history of California’s San Joaquin Valley . . . deploys a skilled raconteur’s charm . . . how the mythology of the Old West both collides with and overlaps with the realities of the New West is compelling and rich.”— Bradley Buchanan, San Francisco Book Review

 Insightful . . . Bergon’s memories and interviews ground larger historical events.”—Publishers Weekly

“Bergon displays an acute awareness of what has changed and what has endured in the West in the past 70 years. . . . Throughout these essays, Bergon highlights the feedback loop between how myth, movies, and advertisements style the West, and how Westerners actually live in it today. . . .Bergons larger point that all these Western stories are connected, and that the practices and people we associate with the ‘Old West’ survive in the New West today, in surprisingly different but still-recognizable forms.”—Jenny Shank, High Country News

 “Notice the surnames: Basque, Japanese, Okie, and Croatian, respectively. Over the course of this book, Bergon will also introduce us to Italians, a black ranch girl, a Native American, and even a Korean woman whom Bergon first meets on a plane. Their idioms, slang, twang, and pauses that drift into self-effacing chuckles . . . are music to Bergon’s ear, which is perfectly tuned to them in a way that only a native (who also happens to be a first-class writer) can be.”—Aris Janigian, The Los Angeles Review of Books

“Frank Bergon opens up the real West. Not since the historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared in 1893 that he frontier no longer existed, has a writer grasped the essence of the American West like Frank Bergon in his new book Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man. Bergon uses characters that most [San Joaquin] Valley residents know to illustrate how the Old West has met the New West to produce the Real West.” —Bill Coate, The Madera Tribune

 “Now the title Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man is sexy and has appeal for those of us who don’t know a Concord grape from a Chardonnay, and those two characters serve as a window into understanding the Old West values. Bergon also uses them to puncture myths around them and the Old West. . . .Bergon brings us horses, wine, farming, and the true story of the Marlboro Man. Darrell Winfield was the one true Marlboro Man. His work in Marlboro advertising took the brand from an also-ran to the world’s most popular cigarette, based on our sense of his Old West values. And we were right about him. A real cowboy, a real rancher and wrangler, Winfield insisted on authenticity.”—Jack Shea, The Martha’s Vineyard Times

“Bergon turns to portraiture, putting together an incisive and intriguing collection of essays that seek to illuminate the personalities that comprise the western identity. . . .One of Bergon’s subjects is the mixed-blood writer Louis Owens, a one-time colleague and long-time friend of Bergon. This portrait is particularly poignant, as Bergon makes an attempt to understand Owens’s suicide, its causes, and its painful effects on those friends Owens left behind. . . . If there is authenticity, Bergon suggests, it lies in [Marlboro Man] Darrell Winfield, who ‘embodied the spirit that lived in the West.’ And in Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man, Bergon creates an expansive and persistently engaging study of that same spirit.”—Gregory L. Morris, Western American Literature

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