Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Report: "The Day the Cowboys Quit" by Elmer Kelton

It's the rare western book that invites a Marxian analysis, but Elmer Kelton, who died recently, was the rare western writer.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit"takes place at the intersection of rugged American individualism and the collective efforts of the undercapitalized to improve their lot.

The book renders a cowboys' strike - a fascinating concept - that actually happened, on ranches in the Canadian River region of west Texas circa 1883.

By Kelton's lights, the strike occurred in the crucible of corporate encroachment upon the cattle industry that brought an end to the free range. Rationalization and greater efficiency in the beef business left the liberty loving cowboys with a beef of their own and they struck in response to it.

This novel is a beautifully paced, tightly constructed page-turner that manages to treat deeper afflictions in the American condition for those who want to see them, without boring those who just want a good western yarn.

Here's an exchange between the central protagonist, Hugh "Hitch" Hitchcock and the Kansas City corporate rancher Prosper Selkirk, who notes that:

"If I invest my entire fortune in a bad venture and lose it, nobody guarantees to take care of me the rest of my life. When a man gets on one of those bad horses he knows the risks: he implies his willingness to accept that risk when he agrees to the job."

[Hitch] "He accepts the job because he's partial to eatin'.'
"The same reason I take a risk and invest capital."
"There a difference between a man's limbs and his money."

A political writer might take pages to explain this naturally occurring friction so skillfully dispatched in a few terse exchanges by Kelton.

What do the "big ranchers" want? New rules forbidding the use of a company horse for personal affairs or keeping one's own mount without management's consent; the expulsion of "tramps and idlers" from the cowboy camp’s traditional protective care; and the outlawing of a ranch hand’s, "owning cattle in their own brand less than two fences away from the ranch where they worked, which in the Panhandle's open range country effectively canceled out their right to own cattle anywhere."

Each of these, if you're not familiar with late 19th-Century western ranch life (and who is?), comes with a back story Kelton fills in easy as an Arkansas maiden in an Dodge City cathouse.

"The Day the Cowboys Quit," treats the labor action with surprising sensitivity for a manuscript packaged as pulp fiction. Kelton had a deep comprehension of the strike psychology, of the ambiguity that plagues supporters and opponents alike.

He paints those too sure of themselves in a less flattering light than those with doubts. The pioneering, don't tread on me individuals opposing the strike are slaves to the American winner-take-all mentality and obsequious to those with more money simply because they have more money. They lack a dissident and skeptical spirit.

The strikers are scattershot in their efforts; too closely identified, and easily taken advantage of, by the cattle thieves and drifters littering the fast-closing frontier.

The author aptly develops the unspoken reasons behind labor actions that actually prop up the prosaic demands for higher wages and better working conditions.

And speaking of prosaic, Elmer Kelton has a fine ear for plain-spoken dialogue between down home folk while investing his narrator with an-all-too-familiar, but no less colorful klatch of colloquialisms that move his story along like bulls through a brier patch.

“The Day the Cowboys Quit,” alternately delivers on resolutions that leave a reader satisfied, without tying every loose end so that the story finishes in an uneven fashion that comes mighty close to looking like life beyond books.

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