People who aren't cowboys or whose heroes haven't been cowboys have a hard time deciding whether to recount, romanticize or ridicule the cowboy myth. After pages of chronicling, years of romanticizing and reels of kidding the cowboy, how does a writer lure a reader once more into the frontier?
In an article, "The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy," published two years ago in Esquire, Aaron Latham found the right tone, the right voice with which to tell the story of city cowboys and cowgirls who spend their days doing hard, often demeaning, work, then put on fancy, dude cowboy outfits and head for Gilley's, Houston's 3 1/2-acre honky-tonk, where for $2 they can take their chances and take out their frustrations on a piston-driven, urban bull.
Now, in a novel, "Urban Cowboy," (part of a phenomenon -- the movie, starring John Travolta, premiered in Houston last weekend) Latham tells the story again. What made a good 7,500-word article doesn't, in this case, make a good 120,000-word novel. There are few new details and a much less controlled tone.
Latham is doggedly serious about maintaining the cowboy motif: "herds of vehicles" park on "Westwood Drive"; the hero's aunt looks "something like a Hereford cow"; Gilley's parking lot looks "like a mechanical trail drive" with cars and trucks "bedded down for the night"; a radio preacher talks about God watching over His children like a cowboy watching over his herd; the cars are Mustangs, Pintos, Colts; the Mobil Oil refinery is a "metallic range."
There is a little characterization, but we are familiar with stereotypes, right up to the final showdown. The urban cowboy hero straps on his leather tool belt and draws his hammer against the outlaw's pistol in a duel over the urban cowgirl.
All this might be funny if Latham didn't seem to take it so seriously. "Urban Cowboy" has all the ingredients for a good parody, but the tone suggests neither humor nor irony. What is missing from the novel, but was present in the Esquire article, is Latham's point of view, his personal voice which recognizes the absurdities without condescending to the people he is writing about. The novel's voice lacks authority, and the characters are so unconvincing the reader can't sympathize or identify with them.
As cowboys migrate to the city, a few city folk head for the wide-open spaces. In the tradition of the educated Easterner who goes West for a firsthand look at the cowboy, Diane Ackerman in "Twilight of the Tenderfoot" travels to the 180,000-acre Tequesquite Ranch in New Mexico.
"Twilight of the Tenderfoot" could have benefited from a good copy editor. Ackerman describes her arrival at the Teuesquite in Eastern "round-toed boots," and in the same scene complains about her "sandal-exposed toes" and vows to wear boots there-after.
Ackerman's voice is at times unconsciously condescending, at times self-conscious. Among the cowboys and their families she thinks of herself as "the rara avis " and says that "out here I am as rare as rain." Wondering whether Mike, a "bright, sensitive and intense" young cowboy, will be able to find a suitable girl, Ackerman figures "the odds are low that the local, small-town girls will include one that's a little upstairs." Ackerman all too often sees herself as Dr. Ackerman, "physician of the soul," who has to be "forever pruning and bankrupting my thoughts." When Mettie, one of the cowboys, asks her, "When you write about something do you always need. . .," she completes the question, "Need to fall in love with it?" and goes on to answer, "I guess so. . . I don't know exactly why, but I seem to fall in love with ideas the way other women fall in love with men."
This voice and the attitudes it implies are irritating at times, but at other times Ackerman's voice fills with so much enthusiasm that it wins you over. She does care and feel deeply about the West, names it "the landscape of one's heart's desire." The only way a true voice can emerge is when a writer is willing to write so openly about his experiences and ideas that he takes the risk of self-exposure. A personal narrative reveals as much aobut the writer as about the material he's shaping.
"Twilight of the Tenderfoot" doesn't tell you much about cowboying that you don't already know, but it reveals a good deal about Ackerman's wonder at life and the desire to preserve experience in the timelessness of telling about it: The writer's desire to name. After helping with a difficult calving she thinks, "How could I see so many calves born and never feel it?" and then, "I want to name it." As they leave the newborn calf, one of the cowboys saddles up and then says, "Makes a difference, doesn't it?" Diane Ackerman's wonder provides the moments that finally make a difference, make "Twilight of the Tenderfoot," in spite of its flaws, worth the effort.