The Brave Cowboy was Abbey’s second novel, published in 1956. It introduces Jack Burns, the eponymous cowboy, who will reappear in a number of Abbey’s works of fiction hereafter. We meet Jack as he rides into town (somewhere in New Mexico) on his horse, grumbling in typical Abbey fashion about the military-industrial complex creeping across the desert wilderness he loves. He visits a friend, Jerry, and her son Seth, to ask about her husband Paul, imprisoned in city jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility for a two-year term for draft dodging. Paul and Jack, it turns out, share a past as anarchist opposers of the war in Vietnam. Jack hides two files in his boots and proceeds to get drunk and look at people funny at a bar; this leads, predictably, to his joining Paul at the city jail, where his plan can begin to take action.
Obviously, Jack is there to bust his friend out of jail. But Paul wants to take an ideological stand, points out that he turned himself in and debated the question of his “crime” purposefully, and intends to serve out his term, not least because jailbreaking would lead to a life on the run and negatively effect his family. Jack is disgusted, frustrated, and miserable in jail himself (being something of an archetypal wild creature that cannot be caged) and breaks out the first night, alone.
Local law enforcement follow Jack and his horse into the hills, bound for the wilderness where they will be unable to track him, ultimately (Jack hopes) to Mexico, or who knows where. No spoilers here.
Jack is a symbol. He is everything that is wild and untameable, and counter to the “civilization” (I think of Huck Finn’s “sivilization”) of city & town, military test ranges, factories, and regular baths. He’s rough-n-tough and (I imagine) everything Abbey dreamed of being. He and Jerry, Paul’s wife, share a moment of sexual tension that goes unexplained; I wonder if light is ever shed on this subject in other novels, or if it’s just a gratuitous moment of sexuality – otherwise absent in this book, unusually for Abbey. The manhunt scenes in the desert canyons are excellent, and reminiscent of those in The Monkey Wrench Gang (which Abbey wouldn’t write for another nine years). And the opposing symbol to Jack Burns, the sheriff Morlin Johnson, is an exquisite picture of everything wrong: he picks his nose and scratches his armpits, grumbles at his wife on the phone, is incompetent in every way; and yet, to Abbey’s credit, he retains some humanizing characteristics as well. For example, he struggles to control the enthusiastic manhunters, reminding them that their quarry is not a murderer and should not be shot on sight.
Literary critics, I imagine, could find points to contend over. The good and evil may be a little straightforward; Abbey never bothered with subtlety in his values. The plot is simplistic. But I don’t necessarily find these to be weaknesses. Jack Burns is an archetype, yes, but he’s a strong and entertaining one. I found the ending (still no spoilers!) powerful. Abbey’s highly realistic descriptions of natural scenery, man’s crude habits and strengths and weaknesses, campsite routine, and urban decay are among the best I’ve encountered. Jack’s horse, Whisky, and the relationship they share were a charming addition. While not complicated in form or message, I found The Brave Cowboy to be an excellent read, and a fair representation of Abbey’s work.
This book was adapted into a movie called Lonely Are the Brave, starring Kirk Douglas, in 1962, and I will now be seeking that out.
Also, a later Abbey novel called Fire on the Mountain (which I reviewed, and enjoyed) shares an ambiguous connection. The little boy in that book is named Billy, and seems to be the wrong age to grow up to be Jack Burns. But they share the same grandfather, whose ranch meets the same fate in each telling. Abbey wrote Fire later, and I have no explanation for the disjointed connection between the two stories. Are Billy & Jack brothers? Cousins? Mismatched versions of the same man, early & later in life? I am intrigued.
Another great Abbey novel. Luckily, like Hemingway, Abbey is on the one hand dead and no longer writing, but on the other hand, was prolific enough in life to keep me stocked for the time being. Keep ‘em coming.