Thursday, October 5, 2017

Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy




When I first landed in Albuquerque, I felt like I might as well have landed on the moon.  A sophomore in college, I had transferred from the “home” campus of my college in Annapolis, Maryland, to the campus in Santa Fe.  Never having been to the southwest before, I was unprepared for its austere beauty.  Riding “The Roadrunner”, the van that carried travelers from the Albuquerque airport to Santa Fe, some 60 miles away, I noticed every new scrap of green that appeared as we travelled higher up into the mountains – out of Albuquerque’s dustbowl and into Santa Fe’s, by contrast, verdant high desert.  During my four years there – school and one more where I tried to join the tiny middle class in a city that includes many poor and very wealthy citizens often living cheek by jowl – I pined for the lush green of the Midwest.  My friends would claim that I just needed to slow down – that the mountains around us were waves that were cresting and, if we could slow enough, we could see that they were liquid.

Edward Abbey’s 1956 book, The Brave Cowboy, dropped me back into Albuquerque and the mountains around it.  Though he played a bit fast and loose with the geography, the texture of the place – the canyons and the arroyos felt like – from a very different vantage point – home.  And it was good to be back.  The writing of the book is also a movement back – back into a world that is described from the outside (in beautiful and moving detail – with care that invites, especially at the beginning, the kind of slowing down that my friends in the southwest urged upon me), but that leaves us to imagining the internal world of people we meet instead of having direct access to it. 

The first and central figure is Jack.  A cowboy who is living in a world that is increasingly hostile to his kind, his first action is to cut a barbed wire fence when there is no apparent gate.  He is on his way to connect with his friend Paul, who is married to Jerry.  He gets there on horseback and crosses lots of uncluttered landscape, and one memorable highway where his mare, who is barely broken, becomes skittish, imperiling them both as she skids and clatters across the unaccustomed black top while cars and trucks bear down on them.  (In a seemingly random coincidence, I once road my bike on that same highway and was carried across the lanes – through traffic – to be deposited safely upright and still riding on the other side – by a dust devil – one of the small tornado-like wind events that occur in the Southwest).

Jack finally arrives at Paul and Jerry’s home to find only Jerry there with their young son.  Jerry is a vision.  She is a confident, brash woman who is clearly connected to Paul and quite attracted to Jack (whom we only learn later is not a particularly physically attractive man).  The connection between Jack and Jerry is palpable – but they, largely because of Jack’s restraint, remain chaste.  Paul, it turns out, is in the county Jail waiting for transfer to Federal Prison because he has refused to sign up for the draft.  He is not, it turns out a draft dodger.  In fact, he served in the military.  Nor is he a conscientious objector, which would not make him a criminal.  He is opposed to the idea of the necessity of the imposition of the federal government making a claim on him – the draft, instated in 1948 – is, in his mind, unconstitutional.  Jack promises Jerry that, having heard about Paul’s predicament, he is here to talk with him about that and sets out to visit him in jail, despite Jerry’s protests that this is not one of the jail’s visiting days.  Jack proceeds to get himself into jail as a prisoner where he meets up with Paul.

Initially I thought Paul was the most interesting character in the book.  Frankly, I thought that it would be a book about his moral dilemmas and sense of being trapped.  In fact, I thought that Paul was everyman, trapped by authorities, but also by time, in a jail that he could not get out of.  I imagined he and I as prisoners in our own heads, caught by ideals and concerns and blind to what is going on around us.  Even when it became apparent that Jack was there to spring him – Jack brought a couple of files with him into the jail – Paul’s ambivalence about leaving and his fear of living on the lam seemed to be further evidence of his sense of entrapment – which by then Jack had clarified was an entrapment in his sense of moral rectitude – a moral rectitude that led him to value being right over being home and thus trumped his being relationally available to his wife and child.  This became even clearer when Paul revealed that he could leave at any time – all he had to do was to agree to be on the draft rolls and his two year sentence would be commuted.  And now Jack is in Jail with him – beaten by the guard, about to go on the lam himself, with no simple get out jail card like Paul’s, and I felt concern that Jack had been hornswoggled by Paul’s rigidity.  But it becomes clear that it is Jack and his freedom, or lack thereof that is the central concern of the novel.  And we leave Paul, summarily, behind.

The protagonist who proves worthy of Jack is the sheriff.  The sheriff could not be more different than Jack.  Where Jack is thin, the sheriff is round.  Where Jack is single and carefree, the sheriff is henpecked and deeply attached to his children.  Where Jack is impulsive and loyal, the sheriff is thoughtful and self-centered.  These two characters are, however, the two characters that are most clearly cut from the same cloth.  They represent many things, but among them they represent us, the reader – and me, the reader cooped up in the Midwest – hoping to take his family to the land that is so close to his heart and so far from everything that is familiar and comfortable – for me, but also for them.

Jack and the sheriff are the only two who, in the posse chase that draws in more and more people to traipse through the canyons and the arroyos, have a reverence for the world of nature that they are lucky enough to be immersed in while going about an increasingly grim business.  They are the only two who are thinking about each other – Jack anticipating that someone will do what the sheriff does, and the sheriff thinking through the options available to Jack as he works to track him down.  They are drawn together and both are trapped by a system that is grinding each of them down, a system that will ultimately consume them both – and they are the ones that we end up caring about (OK, we have a few feelings for Jerry, but this author is not one to acknowledge women as independent beings, nor does he acknowledge the feminine in his own soul (and I find myself wondering if this is one of the walls in his personal prison cell)).

In any case, the dilemma for both of these men is that the modern world cannot tolerate them.  One commentator on the book maintains that this is the last cowboy bookwritten.  This is not my genre and I wouldn’t know, but it certainly seems to be a book about the last cowboy.  And his death feels like the death of one version of the American Dream.  The dream – or fantasy – that we can expand westward indefinitely – that we are infinite in our vision, and unencumbered as we move forward into an inviting new day turns out to be just that – a fantasy that is empty and, despite having been alluring, ultimately one that disappoints us.


Jack, when he is a young boy, is sent by his mother, after his father dies, to live on his grandfather's ranch because she cannot keep both Jack and her new man and she chooses the new man.  On his grandfather’s ranch, Jack joins his grandfather and the other cowboys on a cattle drive as cook’s helper.  His hero is the lead cowboy who is dazzling in his abilities in the saddle.  But the lead cowboy embarrasses the cook, and Jack’s grandfather steps in to sets things straight.  In doing this, the grandfather – the man who stands up for the little guy against the tyrant – becomes Jack’s new hero.  And Jack has emulated that hero, giving up his own freedom to fight for Paul who, it turns out, doesn’t really want or need his help.  Paul is already hopelessly enmeshed in the system.  And so, it turns out, is Jack.  This is a tragedy not in the Greek sense, though it is that, but in the cosmic sense.  Freedom is, it turns out, not something that we can aspire to, even in this, the home of the free and the land of the Brave Cowboy. 



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