Monday, October 11, 2010
Ed Dorn used to say that Abbey's The Brave Cowboy, published in 1956, was the last cowboy novel. It's true. Most subsequent novels seem more like trips down memory lane. Of course, some would counter with Cormac McCarthy. But the latter's Border Trilogy is more nostalgic for a past that no longer exists, while No Country For Old Men, which is similar to Abbey's book, in contrasting the old and new, takes a more conservative view of things. In McCarthy's novel, the hunter represents older, more humane values and the hunted the corruption of the modern world. In Abbey's novel, the cowboy is hunted, and his ethos on the verge of being destroyed, and what hunts him is the law and letter of present day America, with its restrictions, its highways, fast food restaurants, strip malls, free market capitalism, etc.. It's definitely the politics, as much as the prose, of The Brave Cowboy that grabs one's attention. Forget the movie adaptation with Kirk Douglas. Even though the screenplay was written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and features Walter Matthau and a young Gena Rowlands (directed by David Miller, a Hollywood veteran with a limited pedigree, best known for directing Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear and, years later, Executive Action based on the Mark Lane book on JFK's assassination, with another script by Trumbo), the film only hints at the novel's spirit and politics. Perhaps that's understandable given that the film hit the screens in 1962. Put Miller could have done better by Abbey, whose contention was that the cowboy is destined to be destroyed by the culture he helped created, but not before being turned into a mythologized creature of the past. That image- nicely captured in the film- of Jack on his horse trying to cross a modern highway pretty much says it all. Abbey contrasts the theoretical with the real. There's Paul, a bookish anarchist, in jail for refusing to register for the draft (the novel takes place around 1950), his politics making it impossible for him to register as a conscientious objector; after all, he's not objecting to war as such but to slavery, and who believes that nothing- neither law nor country- supersedes friendship. Then there's Jack the cowboy, the authentic anarchist, who comes to town to break Paul out of jail. Jack has no home, can't stand the thought of spending a night in jail, and doesn't understand why everyone else doesn't feel the same. When he finds that Paul cannot ethically justify escaping, Jack breaks out with two Mexican prisoners. Striking out on his own, Jack is chased by a weary sheriff, blatantly uncomfortable in his own skin, and his gung-ho deputies. Abbey may have later developed some idiosyncratic beliefs, some of which (immigration, AIDS) might not have been out of place in the current Arizona political climate, even if some of those Arizonians would have strung him up for his environmental extremism. But Abbey's politics in The Brave Cowboy are never less than perceptive, and his descriptions of the desert and the New Mexico mountains never less than exquisite. Totally unlike The Monkey Wrench, in which he is understandably out to find the lowest common denominator, and more like Desert Solitaire, which remains of the most beautiful deliberations on the American southwest, The Brave Cowboy, which could equally be called "the last cowboy," should be required reading for anyone interested in the west, where we've been and where we're going.