The American West is a region of subtle, folksy flavors, each state characterized by an externally reinforced image: Colorado radiates an aura of upscale hippie crunch, Texas struts strike-it-big bling, Utah dazzles under the long shadow of Mormonism (and Sundance), and New Mexico pipes out a pleasing desert spirituality.
Wyoming, meanwhile, welters under a stubborn, wind-savaged crust of tough luck. Alexandra Fuller’s third book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, is part memoir, part case study of the chapped-knuckle gestalt of the Cowboy State. Though Colton Bryant is basically a salt-of-the-earth modern-day rural kid who grows up to become a third-generation hand in the local oil fields, Fuller, for inexplicable reasons, has elevated him to a heroic everyman. “Colton is a native son,” she writes, “so the weather and mountains, horses and guns, pickup trucks and oil rigs are what he must use to measure himself against manhood . . . there’s truly no easy rite of passage in Wyoming. It’s all bucking broncos and four-wheelers in the middle of nowhere and subzero and sheer ice and too fast everything and high, voracious winds. Sure, if you’re lucky or have choices and time, there are more careful ways to measure yourself against the land than this flat-out, balls-to-the-big-sky method, but Colton doesn’t see the benefit in pacing himself.”
The book tracks Bryant’s milestone moments—birth, boyhood, manhood, marriage, and a shamefully early death due to lax safety measures on an oil rig—in poetic prose that’s bound up in valentine ribbons of reference to Bryant’s favorite saying: Mind over matter, or “if you don’t mind, it don’t matter.” He is presented as a man indivisible from his surroundingsequal parts simplicity and struggle, gentle wisdom and imposing toughness. Taking a big draught from the Proulxian trough, Fuller all but makes her hero a stand-in for the state itself.
Fuller has the brutal realism of Wyoming’s working class screwed down tight: “So Colton was born with horses and oil in his blood like his father before him and his grandfather before that and maybe his grandfather’s father before that. Who knows, because Wyoming is repeopled every time there is another oil boom, transience refreshed and history forgotten. People arrive in Wyoming on their last tank of gas, no way to chicken out at the last moment and go back to whatever it is they were running away from, weighed down with a new heartload of all the old reasons for starting fresh. And then the boom’s over and the brokenhearted leave, and it’s all unpeopled trailer parks and motels with their peeling backs to the long set of the afternoon sun. The wind blows the same anyhow, boom or bust, although more hollow with less people there to hear it.”
The wisdom and plucky soulfulness of the protagonist become suspect when the book ends with the disclaimer that certain aspects of Bryant’s life have been mutated to punch up the story. It’s a refreshing bit of honesty (and perhaps necessary in this post–Million Little Fabrications era), but one that queers the impact of this loving tribute. Is Bryant an authentic protagonist or a puppet?
Such concerns may not trouble all readers. To some, it will serve as a vivid slice-of-life (and -death) story. To others, for whom Verlyn Klinkenborg’s backcountry musings in the New York Times are sacred texts and to whom class struggle means being tortured by the notion of sending their kids to public school, it will be a marvelous bit of hard-luck literary lifestyle tourism. For those of us Fuller fans, it’s simply a good-enough fix, a chance to enjoy the seductive pleasure of her wordsmithery, its lean sensuality and tart reverence. Fuller can rhapsodize without mush, and muse without being intellectually gassy. While the object of her affection may mystify, you’d be hard-pressed to find a love letter more sincere or movingly rendered.