“No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”
If you see that disclaimer at the end of a movie, you know it was made after 1980. That’s when the Screen Actors Guild finally negotiated a contract forcing studios to let the American Humane Association oversee the treatment of animals used in film and television productions.
Read Molly Gloss’s new novel, “Falling From Horses,” and you’ll understand why animal welfare became so important to the guild. The story is set in the West at the end of the Great Depression. The economy is recovering in much of the country, but hard times linger in the hills of Oregon, where people make a meager living from a grudging land.
Nineteen-year-old Bud Frazer has worked on his parents’ ranch since he was 5. He’s rodeoed enough to know what broken bones feel like, and by 1938 he’s seen a lot of Saturday matinee westerns. Believing he has what it takes to be a stunt rider in Hollywood, he boards a bus for California and meets Lily Shaw, a young woman with similar illusions about the welcome she’ll receive as a screenwriter with great ideas.
Eventually, they each find work in Los Angeles. Lily reviews scripts for a small studio and quickly learns the tawdry requirements of moving up in showbiz. Bud is hired by a stable to deliver rental horses to production companies that crank out corny westerns at the rate of one per week.
He soon finds out that the cowboy stars he once admired are jerks “who couldn’t ride for applesauce.” He discovers as well that there isn’t “a bit of glory in making those damn movies.” Worse yet, the horses he takes care of are routinely neglected and casually abused, often injured and sometimes killed.
When Bud himself finally mounts up for the camera, he knows stunt riders are treated with almost equal indifference. He ends up making his painful way back to his parents in Oregon — his pelvis smashed and his dreams of a glamorous life as dead as the horses at the end of a lethal action sequence.
Much of “Falling From Horses” reads like a memoir of an interesting time in Hollywood history written by a man determined not to shine up his account of those days with anything beyond plain facts. As such, the book works for nine or ten chapters. The setting is fascinating. The dialogue is realistic. The prose is spare but often beautiful. The characters are believable. Its psychological insight rings true.
Even so, the novel’s grip stays loose from start to finish, despite many potentially dramatic moments: There’s a fatal car accident. A friend is crippled. A horse is hit by lightning. A sister dies. There’s a violent mugging and a creepy rape. These events are seen from a distance. Time has bleached away their color and emotion, and they remain unconnected, robbing the story of tension. The result is a structure that seems loosely piled up rather than constructed.
Occasionally, Bud’s memoir is replaced for several chapters with an omniscient narrative that lurches back to his parents’ early marriage and Bud’s childhood. Just as the parents’ story becomes engaging, the novel returns without transition to Bud in 1938 or skips ahead several decades for long quotes from a magazine article by Lily, who all but disappears for much of the novel. Such passages are strangely segregated from Bud’s narration; a consistent voice might well have served this story better.
And yet, paragraph by paragraph, Gloss — whose books include “The Hearts of Horses” and “The Jump-Off Creek” — is such a skillful writer that I came to believe that this may have been a deliberate choice. Maybe the medium really is the message.
“Things happen,” Bud’s father observes. “You make peace with what you can’t help.”
Perhaps “Falling From Horses” is meant to reflect the sense of Depression-era ranchers that life isn’t a story — it’s just one damn thing after another. These stoics don’t look for meaning in tragedy. They suffer deeply but without comment. They endure pain and hardship. They go back to work as soon as they can hobble out of the hospital.
That’s the cowboy way, and that might be precisely what the author wanted to convey.
Russell is the author of five novels, including “The Sparrow,” “Dreamers of the Day,” “Doc” and “Epitaph,” which is coming in March.
FALLING FROM HORSES
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
330 pp. $25