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Review: Cowboy up, cupcake

Alexandra Fuller, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, Penguin Press, 204 pp., $CDN26.50

Cowboy up, cupcake. This motif runs through Alexandra Fuller’s third book like the refrain of a song  men might even sing around a sputtering campfire on a cold night in Wyoming. This is the story of  a decade in the life of an ordinary young man, his journey to adulthood through western crucibles like taming a mustang and killing a three-point buck and rounding up cattle and getting a high school education. And falling in love with a pretty girl, and getting married and becoming a father. All this, before he falls off an oil rig in the middle of a winter night. And dies, just twenty-five years old.

This is an exquisitely written book; admittedly, exquisite seems the wrong word to describe a book about men and their pickup trucks, their guns, their horses, long, long drives across vast expanses of silence. And the boom and bust towns, where bored, dulled children call one another “Retard,”  where a boy’s best friend sets out to kill the “Uncle” who has molested him and his sister, where there are  “bars without windows so you can drink all day and night without being reprimanded by sunlight.”

But exquisite and elegant it is. Fuller has taken, as a sculptor might a big piece of granite (and this kind of man is exactly that), a paradigmatic life (short, plain, and brutally ended)  and carved it into a parable, a myth.

Fuller never knew Colton H. Bryant. She wanted to write a book about the oil business in Wyoming, where, as she notes, the profits are obscenely huge and life is dirt cheap. Companies like Ultra Petroleum post multi-million dollar profits, but cannot be bothered to put up a $2000-safety rail that would save lives, and somehow still escape having to make irksome financial retribution to widows and children, except for paltry worker’s compensation.

In her research, Fuller heard about the death of this young man, contacted his family and made of the mundane facts a richly imagined work of art.  Fuller’s first two critically acclaimed and best selling books (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Scribbling the Cat) were rooted in her own hardscrabble colonial family history in Africa; she married an American and settled in Wyoming, and finds huge resonances and reverberations between the two cultures, different as they may seem to an outsider. There is in both instances a harsh yet beautiful landscape—the kind that people fall deeply in love with—and  profound kinship with animals, and hapless, luckless families pitted against large, barely comprehensible, hostilities. Fuller relishes and can convey the smell and feel of animals, the taste of dust and blood, the fear of humans in the wild and especially the toughness of men; it matters not if this is Zimbabwe or Wyoming. She does not suppress the erotic charge in her observations on these laconic, enigmatic men.

Colton H. Bryant was third or fourth-generation casual labour on the oil rigs, what is known as a roughneck. His father, Bill, a pretty much lapsed Mormon, worked indefatigably for the same oil company all over Wyoming for thirty years, until he was fired for a ten-dollar clerical error. In this world, women hunker down and raise kids; men drive through nights to get to rigs where they work nonstop for weeks at a time, day and night. A heroic father is one who drives back home through the night to spend his waking hours with his chlidren, as Bill does, even if quality time with a daughter is something as simple as taking oil-soaked work clothes to the laundromat. Casual labour is cheap labour; Fuller is saying that the entire oil business in the United States is built on exploitation of man and land, indifference to social and environmental consequences, and on the heartbreaking resilience of  both people and landscape.

The book reads like a ballad, in fifty-two short chapters, each a meditation on the iconic moments in a young man’s life, the stories that will be told over and over again to the children he left behind. Colton has a crazy laugh and blue, blue eyes; he is a loyal brother and a true friend; one of the great things about this book is its portrayal of male friendship, that between Colton and his best friend, Jake.

Undoubtedly, Fuller idealizes her subject—she says as much in an author’s note—but this is an elegy and the tone feels right. There is no need for soft, sentimental or histrionic writing; tragedy is implicit, normal. Bryant was the fourth oil rig fatality in eighteen months in Wyoming, which has the worst record for workplace accidents in the union.

By choosing parable over polemic, Fuller has gone to the heart of the matter. One cannot help but wonder about similar stories unfolding in the oil sands of northern Alberta.