Stephen King’s books series The Dark Tower is about a gunslinger in a world that has “moved on”. It’s not really a western. It’s a cross-genre set of writings (Sci-fi, Western, Fantasy, Contemporary). I think King’s reconstructed gunslinger is an icon for the Rules of Work.
The gunslinger is single-minded, in pursuit of an ultimate goal. He struggles to remain undistracted. The thing that sticks out at me the most, yes because of my own failures in this area, and the lessons learned by learning to stand again after, is that a gunslinger doesn’t entertain petty venalities – laziness, envy, pride, indulgence. If his bullets get wet and he gets wounded, he seeks out ammunition and bandages. He stores up food and water, and uses it rationally, not greedily – knowing that he doesn’t know where the next is coming from. If he turns to the left or the right, as sometimes happens to human beings, he tries to correct his course, to move away from those things that dull the senses. He doesn’t indulge in needless sleep, but he treats rest as an essential need. He doesn’t fill his gut to fatness, but knows he can’t run without fuel. He cares for his tools, like dear friends. He keeps his body in shape, his mind alert, his senses sharp, because those are tools too, the most important ones – you might get another pistol, but you don’t get another self (except, perhaps, in the bizarre worlds of Stephen King – but even those are not things the gunslinger can truly count on). The gunslinger is no bully, no blowhard, no showoff. The gunslinger sees other gunslingers fall; he doesn’t think he’s invincible – he’s in touch with his vulnerability – aware of it, wary of it, and sober about it – realistic. As King would have it, he doesn’t “forget the face of his father”.
A couple of years ago, I wrote “I want to be a cowboy, baby“. I hadn’t read King then, but I think the analogy is still apt, if from a slightly different angle. The gunslinger does something else, though, something more I want to learn from. The gunslinger doesn’t plan to live forever. He doesn’t need to. He just needs to accomplish his goal. He doesn’t have to come out unscathed. He doesn’t have to wind up with all his fingers. He doesn’t have to, actually, live one moment longer than his ultimate goal. He might like to, but he doesn’t need to. In fact, some gunslingers – that’s when they’d most want to go, rather than wasting away somewhere in their beds. The thing is, though, gunslingers don’t waste away. Eastwood always gets one more movie. If a gunslinger is breathing, there’s one more goal to accomplish, one more draw down in the street. Gunslingers always go down blazing, friends. Even Shane didn’t make it, did he? He couldn’t come back, because he’d done all he’d had to do.
It’s tough to adapt the gunslinger motif when you have a lot of things you want to accomplish. I want to publish 30 books. Actually, I want to publish as many as possible before I die, but I darned sure want to get out more books than I have fingers. I think if I could trade a digit for each book, I’d probably do it, if they let me start with the toes. 24 isn’t bad. Wait, you weren’t supposed to know about that. 20, yeah that’s what I meant. So what’s the single-minded goal, after which it’s finally OK to fall off the horse and let the last of you bleed out? Only if you have to – never willingly – if you’ve got anything left, there’s something more to do. This is the stuff that requires a tougher gunslinger – the grizzled, crusty kind that keeps coming back to thwart injustice, or get revenge on all 28 of his mother’s killers (that’s another thing – it’s a sad loss, a distortion, when the gunslinger gets caught up in negative pursuits – it’s understandable, perhaps even unavoidable, but it’s not his best day – it’s his worst one). For me, I guess, I’ve got a lot of ultimate goals, all the same, but each one with a different face. What about yours?
The gunslinger, you see, is man stripped down to his essential desire above all other desires. He’s a person living in and through his vocation. The gunslinger has cast his life out into the world, like a fly line in a river, as raw meaning. Gone are the unnecessary encumbrances. If he doesn’t need the key lime sofa with the Moroccan cotton cover, or the latest, most fashionable wine, or the most expensive cigar – if they’re not part of that ultimate goal, and won’t fit in his pack, so to speak, they’re as good as tumbleweeds to him. The gunslinger jettisons unnecessary encumbrances, except where he’s given his word. If he’s a good man, he might carry you even after he knows you’re not going to make it. The gunslinger doesn’t succeed because he has no encumbrances – anyone can do that, the gunslinger succeeds in spite of the things that weigh him down – a missing toe, a wounded companion, a promise he must keep even at the risk of his life. But the gunslinger has shaped his life around his desire. He has defined his motion as his work. He has practiced his aim for the day meaning is in reach of his hands, which he has trained to move toward it as easily as breathing. What the gunslinger is facing in the street is never really the ‘man in black’. The street is actually empty, except for the the gunslinger himself. He has decided on his goal – it’s always an inner answer, an internal construct, a meaning no one can give him, provide him, or bestow upon him – it’s one he must accomplish. Even the “dark tower”, if that’s it, isn’t really the tower itself – it’s what he himself wants inside that he hopes to find there. The gunslinger doesn’t look to others to define his life – the gunslinger is, inherently, singular.
I want to be a gunslinger, baby. I want to learn the ways of the six shooter. I want six or twelve to be the only numbers I need to care about, if I do things right, and don’t get fat or lazy. Truth is, I am a bit fat, and I’m a bit lazy. I’ve “forgotten the face of my father”, something a gunslinger must always be careful not to do – he must not forget where he comes from and where he’s going and why. In that sense, every gunslinger tale is an epic.So, I’m going to do what gunslingers do when they turn, as humans often do, to the left or the right. I’m going to reevaluate what I need (and keep reevaluating it), and take up the trail again – as many times as I have to. See you out there, if you’re crossing the expanse in my direction. I’ll wave to you as we go toward our towers. Gunslinger baby. That’s what I am, currently – a gunslinger baby, but I want to grow up to be a gunslinger, baby.