Somewhere between the ld,10 sw,-2 sk,2 celluloid images of "High Noon" and "Dallas" lives the real American West, a land so big it once filled a whole continent with dreams. But, as Ralph Beer shows in his fine first novel, for every dream of wealth or independence someone had to endure a hard, hollow disappointment.
"The Blind Corral" takes place on a hard-scrabble Montana ranch one bleak winter when the protagonist -- you can hardly call him a hero -- returns home after several restless and painful years on the road. Jackson Heckethorn is the kind of guy who likes to let his horse graze a little while he gets oiled in the local saloon, so when he returns to Helena, the closest big town, he's not too pleased to see the familiar landmarks and mores changed. The Stockman's Bar, where ranchers used to gather, now "looked like places I'd seen in Denver and Oklahoma City, where young professionals discussed packaged ski weekends, their secretaries, and articles in Playboy over white wine."
Even worse, the open range has been fenced in by a ruthless corporation that wants to put up houses. The tough, independent way of life of longtime ranchers like Jack Heckethorn's father and grandfather seems doomed. Nearly everything around Jack is either dead or dying.
Beer, who is a rancher in Montana and a contributor to Harper's, has done more in "The Blind Corral," though, than put the ranchers in white hats and the developers in black hats. The Heckethorns and their neighbors on the high plains have intricate personal needs to work out, and a lot of soul-searching has to be done as the bulldozers begin to level the hills.
Jack, of course, is troubled by The Girl He Left Behind, an unnamed cowgirl in Canada with a plastic hip joint. She writes him longing letters but never gets a word in response. He feels guilt over leaving his father and aging grandfather alone on the ranch, after promising his older brother he would stay. He has tormenting flashbacks of an Army artillery accident that tore open his jaw and left several men dead. And he is forever haunted by the memory of his brother, a strong-armed cowboy with the golden name of Summerfield, who was killed in Vietnam.
Jackson comes back to the ranch with a wicked scar across his jaw, takes to pumping iron with his dead brother's weights and breaks a high-spirited horse to the saddle. He tells his father he'll help with one more roundup and then be on his way back to Canada.
You don't believe it, of course, because Beer has painted such a relentlessly male landscape that a mere woman and the promise of her love could never melt this cowboy's winter-hardened heart. Maybe that's the way things are in Montana, but the only sympathetically drawn women in the novel are an unmarried mother and daughter who ride horses, fire shotguns at intruders and swear as lustily as any man could.
It's just not an easy novel to be female in. Jack has no sisters. His mother walked off the ranch to lead a life of rather obvious shame in the city. His grandmother has been dead for 44 years, and his father's girlfriend two-times him.
Many scenes seem to be taken from some Hemingway-esque guide to male rites of passage: shooting animals, learning to ride broncos, drinking to excess, remembering wild horses and other tough hombres of the past. Whatever sensitivity the men have has to be filtered through their stormy connection to the land and the bonds of male kinship.
Beer's descriptions are often eloquent, but there's something about the tone that makes Jack Heckethorn sound a little too much like Philip Marlowe in spurs: "In that rodeo wind, which raised dust and rolled paper plates in empty arenas from the Northwest Territory to New Mexico, I walked the house and told him everything I could remember about the girl in Canada. A girl who had walked up behind me at dusk, right after I'd been eliminated from the money in saddle broncs at the Williams Lake Stampede."
There is not a sentimental page in the book, but that may be because Beer's characters show few emotions other than anger. By the end it seems clear that, for at least one more generation, a few hardy souls will struggle on with a life that always held more freedom than promise.
It would have been nice to see a woman take three-dimensional shape, but in this first novel Beer has nevertheless written a sure-handed, sad evocation of a dying West.
The reviewer is a reporter for The News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C.