COWBOY

By Sara Davidson

HarperCollins. 270 pp. $24

The phrase "cowboy feminism" has been turning up in conversation lately, thanks to "Cowboy," Sara Davidson's "fictionalized memoir." But don't picture Betty Friedan in a 10-gallon Stetson and chaps or a bevy of bronco-busters raising consciousness. The term was meant to apply to women who are bored with the late-20th-century liberated male and are now supposedly pursuing prime beef on the hoof.

Yet "Zack," the romantic wrangler who inspired Davidson to tell this story, is not so much prime beef as lamb: He rides and he ropes, but he is also gentle, passionate and sensitive--more like a cowboy-geisha than a rough rider. And unlike the typical faithless buckaroo who trots off into the purple sage at the first hint of housekeeping, he is long-suffering and loyal in love. Davidson, who tells this mostly real-life story, is a novelist ("Loose Change," "Friends of the Opposite Sex") and television writer, a divorced mother of two who lives in Los Angeles. She comes across as independent and freethinking, though she occasionally gets tired of flying solo: She goes to political meetings on health care issues "to meet men" and advertises regularly in the personals.

Meeting Zack is, on one level, the solution to her partner problem, but on another, he's a disaster as a date, worse as a live-in boyfriend. She worries about his social and educational inadequacies: Poor Zack can't spell, can't make Hollywood small talk, refuses to eat "foreign" food (like penne or goat cheese). And though he runs through money like a pony through barrel hoops, he expects Sara to pick up all the checks and keep him in hand-tooled leather boots. Still, if the reader believes in the premise of this book, it's hard not to root for the success of this apparent mismatch.

The premise? That love humbles us in wonderful, unexpected ways, that if we believe in that mysterious wind that blows our lives, like tumbling tumbleweeds, into new shapes, we must ride blind with it. Matching strides with the Marlboro Man takes some time. When Davidson meets Zack at the Cowboy Poetry Festival in Elko, Nev., she dismisses him as an "insolent yokel" but can't seem to forget his green-eyed good looks. Later, when he pens her a passionate letter (full of misspellings), she recoils but is secretly charmed. Finally, when he mails her a gift (a key chain he's braided from strips of hide, a 19th-century cowboy art he has mastered, with a key attached), she swings into the saddle.

The erotic bond between them proves to be one of startling intensity, and this outpouring of passion inspires some purplish prose, along with a bit of self-appraisal. Davidson knows that she is nostalgic for lost feelings of sexual abandon, but her relationship with Zack exposes to her the timeless (if over-rationalized) imperative of desire:

"What was happening? How could I be so driven, obsessed, besotted by sex? I was almost fifty, starting on the path toward what the literary lionesses--Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Isak Dinesen--extolled as the third stage of a woman's life--'triumphantly post-sexual.' . . . Francine du Plessix Gray wrote 'the more fortunate among us serenely accept that we may never again be seen as objects of erotic desire, that we must acquire instead a deepened inward gaze.' " Davidson forgoes the deepened inward gaze and gallops off on her newfound path to an old wellspring.

Zack makes regular visits to L.A. now, but not everyone is to see him. Her indulged children make fun of him, and her ex-husband is openly scornful. On the set of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," where she is a writer, Zack is hired as an extra but treated like a bimbo. Yet it's to Davidson's credit that she allows the reader to really see and hear Zack, to witness his hapless maverick posturings, his deeply refined connection to nature and his unflappable approach to living.

The seriousness with which she treats a "fling" that has turned into a five-year affair of the heart gives her story unexpected gravity. Zack is a great source of joy. The revelatory nature of his touch is better than yoga or acupuncture: " 'You have good hands,' I said, turning my head so our eyes met. " 'Humbly speaking,' he said, 'I have magic hands.' " Of course he does. He's a cowboy, ma'am.

Carol Muske-Dukes, a poet, novelist and professor of English at the University of Southern California.