The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey

bravecowboyThe 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.

Rating: 7 stoic, unshaven stares into the middle distance.

13 Responses

  1. I think writing a novel with a simple plot is damn hard work. sometimes I forget how hard it is to make reading seem effortless. I’ll keep an eye out for this one at the library.

    • Good points about simplicity, TBM… it’s harder than it looks, right?

      About the library: I’m not sure this one is going to be just sitting on the shelf (hope I’m wrong). I don’t know what your local options are, but just to share: I use the “hold request” option constantly at my local library. I get online and find the book I want and request it to be brought to my local branch; then I get an email when it’s there. This way I just breeze in the door and grab it off the hold shelf right at the front counter. I miss out on browsing, of course. But for a busy woman who knows what she wants, it’s a great system: I’m in and out in 60 seconds with exactly what I came for. And I get the entire library system to choose from rather than just one branch. This book is a prime example of one where my strategy would work well: I’ve just checked, and the Houston Public Library has one copy in their entire system. So just a thought if you want it and have trouble finding it. 🙂

      • I use the request system and I browse. The library system is quite limited here and there’s a fee to request books. I understand the need since libraries are struggling in this economy. I just wish they would use my fees to buy more books.

  2. Ohhh. That’s terrible. 😦 I’m so sorry. A fee to request books! That’s a new one on me; I know that we’ve begun charging for various services but requesting books from within the system shouldn’t be one of those. Ugh.

    • It does suck. I think libraries are a great way to equalize educational opportunities and play an important role in society. Fees takes away from that since not all can pay.

      • No question! Tell me about it! Libraries have for a number of years now been in the crummy position of having to justify their existence and every tiny line in the budget. Which also takes away from the services we provide.

  3. […] meant to watch Lonely Are the Brave, the movie based on the Ed Abbey novel The Brave Cowboy that I read recently. But I couldn’t find it on my neighbor’s Netflix. So we watched […]

  4. […] themes: no Hollywood mogul would involve himself in something so sacrilegious. But The Brave Cowboy was made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas in 1962. Here he is fighting a one-armed man with one […]

  5. This is another one taunting me on the shelf, for how long? (perhaps since that Powell’s shopping trip.) I am very glad I got to it. I found it very satisfying after letting inexplicably low expectations simmer for too long (while my Abbey appetite likely grew.)

    Mainly, the positive elements you mention really shined for me, and the mitigating weaknesses fade to background. I have many other thoughts I will send your way after I pull them together. This is not the ‘minor’ work that so many dismissed early on.

  6. […] five, in fact, which explains why I was so rusty in reconsidering this story). Please note that my review was spoiler-free, where this one does contain spoilers, after a break – I’ll make that […]

  7. The book came out in 1956. U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the role that the military draft would play in that war, was years away.

    In a broader sense, the book is a meditation on what it means to be an individual.

    • I certainly agree with your second statement.

      The first is obviously true; what an oversight; I wonder where I got the conflicting information… my copy of the book is packed away now, but it will be a curious thing to check out again, once I have my hands back on it!

      Thanks for stopping by, Dave.

  8. […] has been too long since I got into some Ed Abbey. Good News follows The Brave Cowboy, in that it spends a little more time with old Jack Burns. This novel takes place in and around […]

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