The Cowboy Way, by David McCumber (Bard) Cloth, $24.
Some Horses, by Thomas McGuane (The Lyons Press). Cloth, $20.
BOOKS ABOUT COWBOYS and the cowboy life, much the same as Western movies, come and go in cycles -- always irregular and never predictable. Texas author Larry McMurtry has been responsible for several of the fluctuations, launching a wave of imitations after books such as Horseman, Pass By and Lonesome Dove. Southern Arizona-based authors Michael Blake (Dances with Wolves) and J.P.S. Brown (Steel Dust) have helped revive interest in the Western novel as a form. Thanks to the itinerant sometime vaquero and doggerel composer Baxter Clark, books of cowboy poetry find readers across the country -- even in New York. Nonfiction about cowboying is another matter. Less popular than novels, it makes up a library to which only a few titles are added each year. Most of those are exercises in nostalgia, memoirs of the old ways or biographies of figures who've made it to the Cowboy Hall of Fame. The last couple of publishing seasons, though, have added some meatier, more useful books to the mix: books about the real work of ranching, which is always grueling, often unrewarding, and sometimes dangerous.
Michael Wallis' The Real Wild West offers a wild and woolly history of a cowpoke mecca. Wallis has spent the better part of his prolific career explaining Oklahoma to the rest of the world, and here he turns his attention to the big chunk of the state that a famed ranch took in for several decades: the 101, owned by the Miller Brothers dynasty, a 110,000-acre spread that produced cattle, grain and Western myth in roughly equal portions.
The Western myth element, as Wallis ably shows, came from the Miller Brothers' well-tuned sense of self-promotion. Onto their ranch came and went such characters as Geronimo, Will Rogers, Buffalo Bill and Tom Mix, the last a Hollywood cowboy who worked on the ranch for a short time. Another Hollywood cowboy, John Wayne, learned "how to ride and how to walk with a cowboy's rolling gait" under the tutelage of a 101 alumnus, Yakima Canutt. With an eye for the Big Picture and a sweeping style, Wallis traces the fortunes of the ranch from a political and economic powerhouse to its eventual decline some decades ago. Along the way he turns up some nicely pointed commentary not often used before, such as historian Emerson Hough's remark that "the chief figure of the American West, the figure of the ages, is not the long-haired, fringed-legged man riding a rawboned pony, but the gaunt and sad-faced woman sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following her lord where he might lead." Wallis gives those sad-faced women room to speak in his book; but as might be expected, the rootin'-tootin' cowpokes speak louder, blustering from roundup to feud to the occasional gunfight.
Former Arizona Daily Star editor David McCumber, a confidant of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, decided a couple of years ago to take a literary detour from suburban pastimes like billiards and pornography (the subjects of his earlier books) and, by way of mid-life crisis, remake himself as a Westerner. "I quit my comfortable job, started writing for a living again, divorced, and moved to a little town in Montana," he writes. And what better way to become a true Westerner than to become a cowboy? McCumber turned up at the gate of a nearby ranch under the shadow of the towering Crazy Mountains, confessed that he knew nothing whatever about cowboying, and asked for a job. He got one, and the pages of The Cowboy Way detail his transformation from urban sophisticate to cowpuncher.
Mostly, McCumber writes, his work was backbreaking and unpretty: he had to hose down feces-caked corrals and trucks, treat bulls for venereal disease, mend fences in howling winter storms, and cope with separation from his children. He writes of all these matters assuredly and affectingly, describing well the "numbing sameness of the work and the dreariness of the season." On the brighter side, he writes with obvious affection of the little tribe of cowboys into whose ranks he was made welcome -- but only after proving himself willing to do the hard work required of the crew. McCumber's glimpse into the world of real cowboying yields surprises for the uninitiated: his cowboys use high-powered radios, favor four-wheel-drive vehicles over horses, read modern British fiction and eat lasagna. Far from the movie ideal, they turn out to be an unromantic but interesting lot, and McCumber does a fine job of bringing their daily lives to his readers.
Another transplant to Montana, Thomas McGuane, has remarked that his adopted state is bursting at the seams with authors, painters, photographers and movie actors. It sported far fewer artists when, in the 1960s, McGuane arrived from Florida to try his hand, in a modest way, at ranching on a then-small homestead near Yellowstone. Ranching, he writes in his memoir Some Horses, turned out to be arduous work, but work made much more pleasant by the presence of horses -- "always, in the view of others, too many of them." McGuane writes humorously and affectionately of what it means to live among these animals, which are, as he notes, "curiously fragile."
For many people, he continues, horses are animals to be dominated, conquered and commanded; it is far better, he says, to recognize the horse as a being with a mind and will of its own, from which you can learn much: "the management of a horse will give you a rapid evaluation of your patience, your powers of concentration, and your ability to hold on to delicate ideas for sustained periods of time." After introducing us to a cast of horses -- and horses, he writes, are as individual as humans -- McGuane sets out on a long road trip throughout the West, visiting ranches where cutting horses are trained, talking with cowboys, and studying the myriad ways of these magnificent animals. The result is a thoughtful book not only for equestrians, but also for anyone who admires fine writing.