Drilling for a Deeper Meaning

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, May 16, 2008


By Alexandra Fuller

Penguin Press. 202 pp. $23.95

At first it would seem that "The Legend of Colton H. Bryant" marks an extraordinary change of pace for accomplished writer Alexandra Fuller, whose earlier books, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" and "Scribbling the Cat," are detailed, realistic narratives, both set in Africa, in some of its most inhospitable climes and dire circumstances. "The Legend of Colton H. Bryant" is set in Wyoming (where Fuller now resides with her husband and children). It is short, incantatory and, although true, cast as a fable, a story of why-things-are-the-way-they-are, a little like Rudyard Kipling's "How the Leopard Got His Spots."

But this short "legend" has a great deal in common with the African books. They all concern men who fall helplessly in love with impossible landscapes and hopeless situations. Something within them connects to the hard times outside them, and that connection increases in strength until it snaps. It never would have occurred to Fuller's father, for instance, or to the soldier in "Scribbling the Cat," or to Colton Bryant to say or think: "A furnished apartment in a temperate climate might be nicer -- and more healthy -- for me. I could get a job mowing golf courses." That would be safe, but boring.

Colton Bryant's fate had probably been sealed before he was born. He came from a long line of hard-luck, laconic, semi-pioneer families who have hunted, fished, broken horses, ridden bulls and eked out a precarious living working in oil fields all over the American West. Growing up in the '80s in the town of Evanston, Wyo., Bryant was wired somewhat differently from other kids. From his first days in elementary school, when he was on Ritalin, he was mercilessly bullied by a cadre of what the author calls "bored little Kmart cowboys," mean creeps who taunted him endlessly as a "Retard!" all the way through his high school years. In the culture of working-class Wyoming, parents didn't complain to teachers, nor were there counselors around to promote fair play. The only advice anyone ever seemed to give anybody was to "cowboy up, cupcake," which translates to: No matter how awful this experience is, just swallow it down and don't complain, because life is going to get a thousand times worse for you, and never get better. So cowboy up!

Bryant grew up in a Mormon household with a dad who worked on the rigs and an older brother who broke Bryant's nose four times in the course of their childhood and classmates who taunted him and two sisters who defended him. He loved to hunt and fish and ride, but he had a mulish streak, to put it mildly: He spent hours swimming in an icy pond trying to retrieve his friend's first shot goose, except that Bryant couldn't swim and almost died. He almost sliced his foot off while chopping wood but wouldn't get into the neighbor's truck for fear of leaving bloodstains and almost died again from loss of blood. He drove out into Wyoming snow in terrible weather and stalled the car. His passengers resigned themselves to death, but Bryant stopped a train with his headlights and saved the day, just barely.

It's a life made up of half-trained mustangs and pickup trucks with gun racks and innumerable cans of Mountain Dew. And hard-won happiness and some genuine fun. Then Bryant married and, when he found out his wife was pregnant, sobbed to his sister, "What if he's like me? What if he gets teased and he has to struggle like I did?" By this time he was working on the rigs, 12-hour shifts in incendiary heat waves and blasting blizzards. Death, which had been flirting with him all along, took him. Colton Bryant -- kind, handsome, loving, brave, decent -- became a casualty of the rigs when he was only 25.

To her credit, Fuller doesn't make this merely a story of capitalist predators and the oppressed underclass. The oil company behaved abominably here, of course, but that's just a fraction of this "legend." One thinks of sometime oilman Dick Cheney's dazzlingly minimalist response to a journalist's question about polls showing most Americans want out of Iraq: "So?" But predatory rich men couldn't exist without a full complement of poor men who take a perverse pride in their ability to bear hardship and "cowboy up." In the weeks and months after Bryant's death, his grave became a de facto shrine in the community, decorated with "cans of chewing tobacco, gallons of Mountain Dew." It was as though, in his inarguable innocence, he embodied all the injustices perpetrated on his luckless peers. This legend is not just about injustice and the unfeeling comment, "So?" It's much more like Kipling's "Just So Stories." It's about how the leopard got his spots. About why Colton H. Bryant died so young.

Sunday in Book World

· The making of the American capital.

· John F. Kennedy's right-hand man.

· Putting words into presidents' mouths.

· Shakespeare's wife steps out of the shadows.

· And Ron Charles on "Adam the King."

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