Even Cowboys Get the Blues 

A disturbing return to the sentimental Western novel

Sometimes context ruins all the fun. James Galvin’s Fencing the Sky is the latest of a dozen or so books I’ve read in the last year and a half set in Wyoming or Montana. Critics have referred to Galvin’s first novel as a “reinvented” or “demythologized” Western, some comparing him to Larry McMurtry or even Cormac McCarthy. But read on the heels of such devastating deconstructions of the American West as James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, D’Arcy McNickle’s Wind from an Enemy Sky or, most recently, Annie Proulx’s brutal Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Fencing the Sky feels downright romantic.

Galvin’s book has good guys and bad guys, guns and lariats, faithful steeds, stealthy Indians, majestic mountains and one seminal crime: the spontaneous murder of a ruthless land developer by a rancher named Mike Arans. The major action happens in the first few pages: When “land pimp” Merriweather Snipes puts his neighbor’s cattle at risk yet again by stampeding them on his ATV, Mike chases the guy down on horseback and literally “ropes” him, snapping Snipes’ neck in the process. After leaving a confessional note in the dead man’s breast pocket, Mike disappears on his faithful horse, Potatoes, to hide in the mountains.

The murder of Snipes represents decades of rancher-anger over land development in Wyoming. The moral questions surrounding the crime become increasingly complicated as Galvin weaves several back-storylines, all involving the invasion of Wyoming by evil, littering, cow-hating, deer-poaching, money-loving outsiders. Merriweather Snipes and his crew are cruel capitalists who buy up land, divide it into 40-acre plots, and sell it to naïve easterners who don’t know about the killer winters and lack of water. The “land pimps” are easy to hate, and so one-dimensional they’re also hard to believe.

The cowboys, on the other hand, love their land, hard work and trusty quarter horses as much as the Marlboro Man himself. That is not to say they actually live Horse Whisperer-esque ranch lives, but they long for them with a sort of primordial nostalgia—a wistfulness for the way things should be. “It was still America, and you could be a cowboy,” Mike thinks in his earlier days. “You could trade a conventional notion of success of an unconventional way of life that involved freedom, morality, pursuit of happiness. You could keep to yourself and not hurt anybody. You’d have to be poor, but you wouldn’t have to worry. As long as you could work, you wouldn’t have to worry.”

Of course, ranch life as Mike goes on to experience it is not nearly that simple or sweet. However, the disturbing thing about Fencing the Sky is its general yearning for such a reality, as if it were the very representation of goodness. The main characters—Mike, a fellow rancher named Oscar and doctor named Ad Trent—all have backbones of integrity that seem deeply tied to their identification with cattle ranching—an (according to the novel) unjustly declining way of life. While Galvin masterfully sews connections between characters through fragmented, poetic sections, the one link he conspicuously avoids—that of cattle ranchers to land developers—leaves a strange rictus in the novel that is, in my mind, unforgivable. To place ranching at odds with recreational development and implicitly align it with Native American sensibilities is to overlook its profound role in destroying the American West’s ecology and original culture.

But remember, context can make a person over-sensitive. Let me stress that Native American presence in Fencing the Sky is minimal, and Indian alliance with ranching is limited to one Apache’s subtle condonation of Mike Arans’ crime. But I simply cannot read a story of rancher-as-noble-fugitive, fueled by a passion for preserving the American West, without thinking of the wrecked universes of McNickle’s Little Elk (Wind from an Enemy Sky) or Welch’s nameless Indian narrator (Winter in the Blood). After all, ranching wasn’t exactly an innocent bystander in creating their miserable realities, and preservation isn’t exactly the first word I associate with cattle.

This is not to say that Fencing the Sky isn’t suspenseful or beautifully written: It’s both. “Summer seemed eternal and never forlorn,” Galvin writes. “But at summer’s end when the sky goes chalky and the prairie washes out in a tawny haze, the loneliness comes on … Worse than fear … Loneliness crescendoed until the aspens turned, the first snow fell, and it withered like a creek going dry.” Galvin is first a poet (Lethal Frequencies, Resurrection Update, etc.) and non-fiction writer (The Meadow), and you’ve got to admire his adept synthesis of lyricism, narrative and history (Fencing the Sky is based in part on a true story) in his first novel.

Another element of the novel I admired was its lack of chronological progression. Each day Mike lives as a fugitive is simply labeled as “Monday,” “Tuesday,” etc., but these scenes are punctuated by sections labeled by year and dating, in no particular order, back to the 1960s. This original structure allows character development to take precedent over a strict linear plot line, and in the end I found myself feeling pretty attached to Galvin’s good-hearted cowboys. Political and historical problems aside, Fencing the Sky is a worthwhile experience.

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