If I fancied a felonious path to riches, I'd start a gigolo service called Midnight Cowboys to service all the city girls who dream of a nuit d'amour with the Marlboro Man. I'd set up a brownstone with a hayloft room, a bunkhouse room and a ravish-me tack room, where the clients would be tended to by highly skilled wild men who wear skin-tight faded Wranglers, quote Yeats and give superior head. A few well-timed "Yes, ma'ams" and a toe-curling roll in the calico sheets: With a 40-percent cut of the $500-an-hour fee, I'd be set for life.
Sophisticated women who are tired of neurotic, vain urban men often pine for the fabled earthy eroticism of the cowboy. We're sure he's a sensual, sensible, strong and loyal bad boy who will never say we're fat or dump us for a younger woman. That one man could be all those things is a long shot, but still, we hold the dream dear and use it to lather ourselves into a serious cowboy letch. The good news is: The fantasy is reciprocal. Modern country music is full of songs exalting the sexual heat in a hick boy/slick girl alliance; "Cowboy Love" by John Michael Montgomery and "Country Club" by Travis Tritt spring immediately to mind. In these songs, a brazen male entices an uptight girl to get her world rocked the cowboy way. They're invitations to drive-by slumming, a torrid little affair that might involve the two of them eating barbecue in the backseat of her Beemer -- or whatever euphemism they're using these days.
Such a tryst was just what Sara Davidson, the author of the 1977 bestseller "Loose Change" and a former writer for the TV show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," had in mind in 1993 when she hooked up with a cowboy from Arizona. But in her fictionalized memoir, "Cowboy: A Love Story," the divorced, middle-aged mother of two finds herself quite unexpectedly falling in love with Zack, her cowboy fling. She soon discovers the challenges inherent in a serious relationship hampered by geographical distance, the protestations of her rather spoiled children and a tremendous disparity in class, education and priorities.
In facing the truth behind the misty-eyed girl-porn cowboy fantasy, Sara (Davidson uses her own name in the book) comes up against every preconception about what constitutes an appropriate lover. Zack makes far less money than she, isn't at all intellectual (though of course he possesses the requisite cowboy common sense) and is, in fact, suspiciously undereducated. Although he claims to have stayed in school until the age of 17, he's never heard of Anne Frank -- or the Holocaust, for that matter.
I asked my boyfriend, a born-and-raised Wyoming cowboy, if this could be true. "Oh please," he said. "I went to a one-room school with 32 kids in it and I read 'The Diary of Anne Frank.' She's probably just making that up to exaggerate how stupid he is and how noble she is for sticking with him." Maybe. (In a recent New York Times profile, Davidson confirms the veracity of her claim.) Either way, I'd run screaming. Then again, I wouldn't put up with a guy like Zack who tucks his pants into his boots, either. Chacun ` son cowboy.
What Sara has to decide is whether she should follow her heart or hold out for a "suitable" mate she enjoys as much as she does Zack. Fortunately, she can rely on the dynamic physical connection she and Zack share to carry her through the deliberation. Davidson comes up with some wince-inducing sentences to describe their transcendent erotic congress. For instance: "We had acquired, by now, a rough map of the places we went when we made love, and there were landmarks." But the flaky writing is (mostly) overshadowed by her sincerity and self-examination:
How could I be so driven, obsessed, besotted with 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." Colette had viewed carnal love as a virus she barely survived. 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."
Not me. I was not going gentle down that path, and I was flummoxed.
Eventually, she moves Zack to California, setting him up with a job on "Dr. Quinn" and an apartment she helps subsidize. She manages to tolerate all the funny looks, snide comments and workplace tension attendant upon, as she calls it, "fucking down," yet when Zack comes to her with his hand outstretched because he's mismanaged his money, Sara is once again forced to question the sustainability of a relationship with a man so different from her.
It's refreshing to read a story in which a woman makes a clear-headed decision to allow herself an emotionally and sensually fulfilling relationship, as opposed to suffering through what she thinks she ought to want. And it's always nice to read of a middle-aged woman having the best sex of her life. In a way, this book is the polar opposite of "The Horse Whisperer" (saw the movie, didn't read the book), in which the heroine leaves her cowboy sweetheart high and dry to return to her bloodless, if secure, New York husband. The ending of "Cowboy" -- which I won't reveal -- is a little bit too "please make my book into a movie!" to be plausible, but what the hell: It's billed up-front as a love story, and Davidson is from Los Angeles, so let her have her cinematic finale. "Cowboy" may be clumsy occasionally, but it's admirably honest and always dear.
While women spin fantasies of winning the cowboy's tough-but-tender love, men dream of having his freedom. They admire the cowboy as a man unencumbered by social frippery, small talk and neckties. But that free-spirited life is just one more raw-boned Western fantasy. David McCumber's "The Cowboy Way" lays to rest any romantic notions of what it's like to work as a cowboy on a modern ranch. McCumber, a journalist who decamped to Livingston, Mont., from California five years ago, worked for a year as a hand at the sprawling Birch Creek Ranch. Partly as journalistic inquiry, partly as mid-life "metamorphosis," he signed on at about 10 grand a year to get his ass kicked -- by the elements and otherwise.
It's almost unfair to review Davidson's and McCumber's books side by side, as McCumber is far and away the better writer. Where Davidson stumbles, McCumber soars. Through simple, often bracing prose, he reveals that these days, cowboy life is anything but sitting at the riverside whittling and doling out nuggets of hickory-smoked wisdom. It's baling hay, stretching and mending fence, artificially inseminating cows, irrigating fields, delivering and vaccinating calves and flushing disinfectant into bull penises: rain or shine, howling wind or blinding snow, day after day after day. McCumber approaches his tasks with gumption, humility and, when he's got the energy to spare, the awe of the blessedly participant observer:
I could not remember being immersed so totally in alien circumstances. It felt like what I had always imagined time travel would be like. How often do you parachute into a completely different life, not doing the same thing in another place or for another company, but working and living in an utterly new way?
This world was exotic in some ways and stripped-down lean in others. After you have worked twelve hours, your evening becomes an agenda of survival without frills. Wash work clothes and hang them up quick or they will not dry -- particularly the quilted coveralls that make outdoor existence possible. Cook something to eat and eat it. Wash the dishes. Take a shower. Write a letter, make a phone call. Sleep, because you must be up an hour before dawn to do it again.
Life is thus reduced to essentials.
The book doesn't follow a traditional narrative arc, and as a result, hacking through the days with the cowboys can get a little monotonous: an obvious and commendable trade of drama for realism. But the page-long passages of lyrical prose that preface each chapter are delightful -- a touch of art among the all-season haul. "The Cowboy Way" is an occasionally wistful yet ultimately unsentimental look at a unique breed of working men. The crushing economic realities and the graceless development of the American West are forever encroaching, making work as a modern-day cowboy a monotonous, ass-busting job that, all the same, a land-loving man is lucky to have.
"The Cowboy Way" and "Cowboy: A Love Story" make an interesting his 'n' hers set. The stoic, split-knuckled story of life on the ranch and the steely but softhearted look at love against the odds play off different aspects of the cowboy mythos. But both authors do an admirable job of peering behind the curtain, too. McCumber shows us that cowboy freedom comes at a cost of dawn-till-dusk labor. Davidson shows us how hard we have to work to square off with our expectations about love. What they both do best, though, is illuminate and honor the cherished place these Western-inspired myths have staked out in the very soul of American culture, and underscore their potency with the bristling stroke of truth.