Where truth is stronger than fiction.

Years ago when I moved to Texas, I remember watching my conservative Southern father respond to his first sight of the old Texas Observer. He picked it up, turned it over two or three times, read it carefully and painstakingly through from front to back, turned it over again and examined the front page, then still holding it gingerly looked up at me with a frown and said: “What is this thing for, anyway?” He was not so much condemnatory as genuinely puzzled. I have to confess feeling somewhat the same about The New Yorker. What is this thing for, anyway? A lot of Texans read The New Yorker wondering what it’s for. Mostly it’s for, I suppose, a sense of style – style in clothes, in humor, in food, in books and films, in fiction, style unmistakably urban, elite, and contemporary. “The country,” in The New Yorker, is New Jersey, and often about the only indication that the rest of the States exists comes from the shopping information in the clothes ads: Dallas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, usually.

Surprisingly, however, this extremely solipsistic magazine has in the last several years published some of the best non-fiction around. Saul Bellow’s excellent To Jerusalem and Back ran in two successive installments. Friendly Fire, the powerful story by C. D. B. Bryan of an American boy’s death in Vietnam and its consequences, first saw print in these precious pages, as did Supertanker, Noel Mostert’s celebratory but scary account of the big oil carriers. One of the best books to come out of the magazine recently is John McPhee’s superb exploration of Alaska, Coming into the Country.

Trouble is, in The New Yorker, it’s hard to tell right away what you’re getting. The pieces, signed only at the end and of unpredictable arrangement and length, could be anything from thirty-five pages on growing tomatoes in Illinois or an apparently endless profile of Jimmy Walker – continued in the next issue – to a short story that ends abruptly and insignificantly at the bottom of the second page. The non-fiction often goes on ad infinitum, the fiction stops just as you begin to get interested. Like life, The New Yorker has a way of handing you too much or too little of a good thing.

Now two established New Yorker writers have come forth with new books which incorporate both the charming and the less charming eccentricities of the New Yorker manner. I’m awfully glad Penelope Gilliatt’s Splendid Lives (Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, $7.95) is subtitled “Stories,” because I swear otherwise I wouldn’t have known. Plot-lessness is their essence, their most marketable commodity, so to speak. It’s a funny thing, too, because as The New Yorker’s film critic (alternately with Pauline Kael), Gillian has the bad habit of telling a film’s entire story, episode by episode, and describing the best scenes in such minute detail that one feels it is unnecessary- or anti-climactic – actually to see the film reviewed. Other people’s plots she can’t resist.

In her own stories, however, she exhibits a subtlety of character and situation so fine that no mere pedestrian plot can violate it. As a result, reading Splendid Lives is like viewing a series of tableaux rarely disturbed by more than a hint of causality or consequence. Certain virtues stand out in the tableaux, it is true. Most remarkable is the endearing gallantry of the 92-year-old Bishop of Hurlingham in the title story. The Bishop, radical, widowed, a distant cousin of Queen Victoria, once in his youth chained himself to the railings of the House of Parliament with his wife during a suffragette demonstration and was sent to prison for it. Now, still in service to the fair sex, he carries a young American girl named Ridgeway across a stable yard so that she won’t muddy her “frock” or her “wonderfully pretty legs.” It’s an appealing little piece and I’m willing to concede it’s a story and even that the Bishop has probably had a splendid life. But I’m doubtful about the plural “lives” and about the splendor of most of the other lives in the book. For splendor I’d like a little more to go on than Gilliatt usually gives us.

That Gilliatt can plot and think stories through I know. She wrote the screenplay for the award-winning movie Sunday Bloody Sunday, for example. But she hasn’t bothered to do so here. I can almost imagine the discussion down at Coward-McCann:

GILLIATT: I don’t have the book ready, J. D. All I have is notes for a book of stories I thought I’d call Splendid Lives.

J. D.: Forget the stories. Give us the notes and we’ll publish them. You’re from The New Yorker, aren’t you?

May the shades of E. B. White and James Thurber protect us.

But The New Yorker manner perhaps works better in non-fiction, and I think on the whole Jane Kramer’s The Last Cowboy (Harper & Row, $8.95) is good. Jane Kramer, the author of The New Yorker’s “An American in Europe’” series, in this little book – only 148 pages – treats the Texas Panhandle and thecowboys who inhabit it as if they were apart of Europe, quaint and alien to a NewYorker. A good reporter, she spent several months – exactly how long shedoesn’t say, but long enough to breakin a new pair of cowboy boots – immersing herself in the cult and realitiesof the cowboy life, particularly in the lifeof Henry Blanton, foreman of the WillowRanch, and his wife Betsy.

Using Henry as a live fossil, a vestige of a disappearing species, she investigates through him such mythical elements as the relationship between the cowboy and his horse, now degenerated into the cowboy and his pickup; the code of the West; and cowboy and ranch history. She also explores such hard realities as absentee ranch owners; modern cattle feeding, enzyme injection, gelding and branding; tax dodges; and the difficult finances of survival on a working ranch. Henry Blanton – the man is real though I take it the name isn’t – Kramer views as a tragically deludedromantic and idealist, a victim of the myth of the West.

He had settled into his life, but he could not seem to settle for it. He moved in a kind of deep, prideful disappointment. He longed for something to restore him – a lost myth, a hero’s West. He believed in that West, no matter how his cowboy’s life, and the memory of his father’s and grandfather’s cowboy lives, conspired to disabuse him.

The point of Henry Blanton’s story as Kramer sees it is that Blanton has submitted to a myth learned largely through the cowboy movies of his childhood. Failing to discover that myth in his own experience, he has lived his adult life in bitterness, depression, and occasional violence.

The idea of course is not new. I’m a little surprised, in fact, that with all of Henry’s movie and television watching, he hasn’t seen Hud, whose chief figure he has much in common with. Hud, Larry McMurtry’s creation in Horseman, Puss By, is the hero turned sonofabitch because he has no outlet for his courage and derring-do. Hud gets drunk, fights, rapes, and tears around Texas in a pink Cadillac. Henry Blanton is a much tempered, married, middle-aged Hud, suffering in the same fallen world.

The death throes of the horseman passing by or the last cowboy apparently will go on as long and as tragicomically as those of Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Thus die I, thus, thus, thus.

Now am I dead.

Now am I fled;

My soul is in the sky;

Tongue, lose thy light;

Moon, take thy flight:

Now die, die, die, die, die –

though as Theseus points out of Bottom, he “might yet recover, and prove an ass.” And something of an ass the last cowboy proves to be both in McMurtry’s book and now in Kramer’s.

In fact, I’ve been trying to think just how Kramer advances the story of the decline of the West beyond McMurtry or her other predecessors. First of all, she deals with the decline non-fictionally in part, in annoying but substantial chapters on economics, history, or methodology inserted into Blanton’s story, which show the decline to be general and inevitable. I find these chapters mostly boring – I couldn’t care less about the effort to find non-carcinogenic hormones – but they do their job. which is to communicate the kind of lasso that is holding a man who wants to be a hero. But Kramer’s second advance signifies more, signifies that the real death of the cowboy is near. Hud was as mean as a rattlesnake, but he had a certain larger-than-life quality, a grandeur even. You could hate him, but you couldn’t pity him. But Henry Blanton is pitiable, a figure not of tragedy but of pathos. In Horseman, Pass By, the old West is there, disappearing in a cloud of dust over the hill, and Hud just missed it. In The Last Cowboy, it’s been gone a long time, the dust has settled, the hoof-prints are almost wiped out.

As a now-committed Texan, I suppose what I find objectionable in Kramer’s book, even more objectionable than the long paragraphs on barbed wire or hormones, is that she so clearly pities her subjects. Without the unifying vision or the humility of Bellow observing the Israelites, or the philosophical profundity of McPhee in Alaska, Jane Kramer often seems ironic to the point of superciliousness. Though in her preface she avows affection and gratitude to the Blantons, her attitude in the book itself is harder to chart. She drops out of sight for long periods, though Henry obviously soliloquizes to someone. On the whole Henry fares pretty well. Inarticulate, silenced by adherence to a code no longer, if ever, effectual, at the end he avenges himself on life by castrating three stray Black Angus bulls, doing, you might say, unto others what has been done to him, though he knows that he is “not expressing right at all.”

But on the journalist’s typewriter Betsy Blanton simply looks silly. A tall, raw-boned woman with an incongruous pouf of bright blonde hair, Betsy loves Kahlil Gibran, movies like The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof, and supermarket food:

The cream from the milk cows in the barn was fine for everyday. So were the wild strawberries from the patch behind the house. But for a holiday like Christmas Betsy wanted to be able to offer frozen strawberries and to set out cans of Reddi Wip and coffee creamer on her revolving tray.

In a sophisticated, well-bred way, Kramer smiles behind her hand. The smile, still too obvious for my taste, expresses superiority to the total structure of these Texas lives: to the Blantons’ church-going daughter, the Saturday night blasts, Betsy’s “fixed-up” bathroom with its plastic chrysanthemums, the coffee table with its spread of Woman’s Day, Reader’s Digest, Western Horseman. What did she expect, anyway – The New Yorker?

Jane Kramer may be right about the passing of the last cowboy. But, stranger, when you say that, don’t smile.


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