A Randy Read

Baxter Black takes another whack at the novel with 'Hey, Cowgirl'

Hang on to yer bonnet, Minnie: Former large-animal veterinarian and NPR/newspaper commentator Baxter Black has just wrote into town. The cowboy poet's either gonna have you groanin' and guffawin', or scrambling for a getaway truck.

This new novel is not for the delicate of sensibility, the correct of politics or the fastidious about fictional form. Neither is Hey, Cowgirl, Need a Ride? for the urbane, the hip, the particular to punctuational propriety, the lofty of thought or the too impressionable to linguistic nuance. But for others, who might like a little manure mixed with their metaphor, the book could prove itself to be a large kick in the funny bone.

One of ours (Cochise County counts), and press-kit quoted as preferring to be the "tallest, scrawniest, most left-handed" (as opposed to "best-loved") cowboy poet, Black has stretched his tale-telling to the novel form before. In his 1995 Hey, Cowboy, Wanna Get Lucky?, he set rodeo cowboys Cody and Lick up against an unrideable bull named Kamikaze. In Hey, Cowgirl, Need a Ride?, he sets Lick and a Las Vegas hottie up against a nefarious plot against endangered species.

The novel opens with cowboys 30-ish Lincoln (Lick) Delgado Davis and 70-something Alowishus (Al) Sitting Bull Bean at a remote Southern Idaho camp wintering 400 head of cattle. A storm blows in, and when they go out to check on the herd, Lick and Al come across a bloodied but beautiful babe who decks Lick and appropriates his horse. She (Teddie Arizona, or "TA") has just crashed the plane she had been flying to escape her casino-owning not-quite husband, F. Rank Pantaker, from whom she'd just stolen $5 million. Predictably, Pantaker's henchmen are immediately on TA's tail, which ends up in Lick and Al's singlewide at a place called Pandora's Thumb.

Although TA has a history, and she colluded with Pantaker in fraud, she has had an epiphany resulting in a change of heart and restoration of chastity. That makes things hard for Lick.

TA was once a near-apostle of wild-animal trainer and showman Ponce de Crayon, who had created a sanctuary for exotic endangered animals. When TA discovered a plot to preserve the balance of nature by hosting a private hunt--at $500,000 a pop--she became disenchanted with Crayon and disgusted with Pantaker. Hence the theft.

Gentlemen, these cowboys (and lonesome, too), Lick and Al sign on to help TA queer the hunt, and they set off on an odyssey marked by admirable intentions, hormonal distraction and cartoonish plot plausibility.

Baxter Black flat-out plays with language. He doesn't seem to be able to write a stanza or paragraph without injecting into it a yuk, an attitude, an accent, simile, pun, gag, alliteration, one-liner or bit of cowboy irony. Sometimes, action stops entirely to take a little comic riff: Bad guys, for example, chasing TA, take time out to have a conversation about names with a clerk. After one has ranted about unconventional naming, the clerk asks him what he's called.

"Paul Valter," he answers.

"Shoot," she says, "I jis' hate it when people name their pitiful kids after Olympic events."

In a recent book-tour interview, Black admitted that when he wrote his first novel, he hadn't had much experience with long fiction ... and some of the reviewers pointed that out. He seems to have corralled the form pretty well in Hey, Cowgirl, however. There is a pursuable narrative line under the sketches he likes to elaborate (like bar bets on head-bobbing through a ceiling fan), and though we don't for a moment think something dreadful will occur, we stay on to see how things will play out.

Black uses carefully crafted dialogue, with characters nicely differentiated by inflection and diction. He's got two narrators--one cowboy-accented, who tells most of the story, with another standing over his shoulder who periodically shows up, talks in bold print without dropping his g's, and philosophizes or explains the action. Hardly common in fiction writing, the device works OK here. What doesn't work--and needs to be lost in the next novel--is the profligate substitution of the exclamation point for action development.

Hey Cowgirl, Need a Ride? exploits stereotypes. It's sometimes randy, and its plot is contrived, but it's a laugh-out-loud book for those of us who enjoy low humor.

Consider this, for example:

Isabella, formerly of Portugal, greets a cowboy infiltrating the hunt: "Welcome. How would you prefer to be called? Many of our guests have chosen to be called under an alkali, a false name, if you know what I mean. To protect your privates."

Enough said. You've been warned. This reviewer's sending a copy to rodeoin' brother-in-law for Christmas. He got a kick out of Croutons on a Cow Pie.

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