Writing the range: Top 10 cowboys in literature
Cowboys are enjoying a surge of popularity, particularly in the land of romance. Right now, X of X top books on Amazon feature six-pack ab-adorned cowboys with steely blue (or green) eyes, staring out from the covers seductively and with promise. They all look vaguely related, too. While these romances are flying off the e-shelves, it’s made us think a lot about the cowboy icon. Why is this myth so persistent? Especially when, by and large, moody, gym-going cowboys without shirts never really existed? And we should know. One of us is a true-blue cowboy, albeit lately lapsed due to love, and he never looked – or acted – anything like these romantic heroes. The other one of us is a born and bred city girl (and the cause of the cowboy lapse), a doe-eyed slightly-lost-in-the frontier just shy of pretty type usually cast as the romantic heroine in the ab-adorned books. Ever since we met, we’ve been debating these questions: What is a real cowboy and are there any characters in books that capture that essence? The answers don’t come from romances, although they are fun to read. The first thing we agreed to agree on – in order to answer the two questions – was cowboy history. Cowboys, at least the variety idealized in American culture, occupied a narrow window of history that mostly mirrored the rise and fall of the big cattle ranches. The golden age of the cowboy started sometime after the Civil War, when the useless slaughter drove veterans west to try and escape their PTSD demons, and ended sometime before the dustbowl, when fencing and farming and over-tilling desiccated the once open range and sent it airborne. That’s 70 years at best – a short amount of time to create such an enduring icon. Sure, the roots of the cowboy myth trace back to Mexico and Spain — giving us the buckaroo (vaquero) and the lariat — and tracked forward to ranchers in the modern west now rattling around in their American-made three quarter ton pickup trucks chasing rodeos and dodging tornadoes. But the archetype, the romanticized cowboy, the man of solitude, the knight of the open range forever looking for a wrong to right and sunset to ride into, came and went pretty fast in history. And yet, the myth of the cowboy crystallized into something far larger and grander than the brief time cowboys rode across the stage of history. A flawed but good-hearted hero, a stoic man with integrity and ingenuity, a heart buried deep beneath a layer of muscle and grit that hides quietly tragic backstory. We finally agreed that it’s the flawed part that makes for the
most interesting literary characters, and reflects the shred of reality inside the myth, especially in the contemporary west where the means to be a cowboy has now shrunk down from the big-ranch era to one of dude-ranches for tourists, or alternative careers like lawman, alpaca farmer or fracker. Today, the cowboy exists somewhere between a disappointing reality (we know, our relatives are cowboys) and an unattainable ideal, grounded in history but distorted by the present, romanticized and deconstructed in movies, country music and, of course, books. We’ve taken all this into account in our selection of realistic cowboy characters in literature – fiction and nonfiction. Here are ten that meet the cut, in no particular order: 1) Quincey Morris. The cowboy in Bram Stoker’s legendary Dracula, published in 1897, Stoker created Quincey during the era when there still were actual cowboys, men who made a living roping and driving cattle. Quincey brought his cowboy bravery into this gothic tale, helping to finish off the Count with his “great bowie knife,” righting the wrong of vampirism, with no mind of injury to himself. 2) Jonah Hex. The tragically disfigured cowboy from the DC comic universe introduced in 1971, Jonah has a penchant for always getting tangled up in occult shenanigans. Complex and compelling, Jonah condenses classic elements of the loner cowboy with a rough but unshakable code of conduct. Jonah can kill 100 people without a pang of conscience, but has a soft spot for kids, prostitutes and ugly dogs. (Forgive him the movie. Some dark forces are outside of his control.) 3) Any of the Sacketts (from the many books by Louis L’Amour). The Sacketts are a clan of proto- cowboys (some of them actually predate cowboys: trappers) riding across a still mostly unpeopled west and occasionally crossing paths with each other (no snapchat in those days) but mostly with bad guys and sad-eyed damsels in distress. The Sacketts are self sufficient, completely self-actualized men who can always be counted on to fail at first, regroup from almost certain death and then triumph over long odds. The Sackett clan represents the best of the myth. 4) Tom Landry. The beloved coach of the golden-age Dallas Cowboys and all around stand up guy, Landry inspired men, had a rigid code of conduct, a cool undersized hat and did battle with a variety of foes, ultimately transcending human to iconic (hagiographic in Texas) status. His biography, The Last Cowboy, does justice to the legend: with 720 pages of insight into a man of few words. 5) Audie Murphy. Like Landry, Audie was a real cowboy, one of the most decorated combat soldiers of WWII, star of western movies and author of To Hell and Back, his autobiography. It has a forward by Tom Brokaw, so that pretty much says it all. 6) Raylan Givens. Hatched in the furtive mind of Elmore Leonard, Raylan appeared in two novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, and a short story, Fire in the Hole, which gave rise to the TV show Justified. It takes more than a hat and boots to make a cowboy; it also takes proficiency with a sidearm and, in this case, an honorary degree from the Ministry of Silly Walks. 7) John Grady Cole and Billy Parham. From Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain), these men walk through a spare, haunted and beautiful literary landscape with limited dialogue, befitting the stereotypical laconic western man, perpetual heartache forever perched on the razor’s edge of violence and, in true cowboy fashion, quietly discomforted by a rapidly changing world. 8) Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. In the satisfying series by Robert B. Parker (Appaloosa, Resolution, Brimstone and Blue-eyed Devil) Hitch and Cole bring a snappy, noir-ish crime story feel to the old west with minimal banter and some very big guns, emphasizing the strong silent attributes. 9) Woodrow F. Call. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series about retired Texas Rangers on a cattle drive memorialized the legendary Goodnight Trail and introduced us to Call, a great example of the bottled up, emotionally distant cowboy who is a dab hand at taming horses. Not many works of fiction about cowboys win the Pulitzer; this one did. Enough said…almost. John Wayne was originally cast in the role of Call ten years before the screenplay was turned into the novel. Now that’s enough said. 10) Walt Longmire. Starring in a series of novels by Craig Allen Johnson (now also a dramatic television series), Longmire cuts a tragic figure – an aging cowboy without land – but manages to trump it by succeeding as a lawman. While this almost disqualifies him for cowboy-status, the force of his personality and backstory trumps his job choice. We relied on these cowboys, along with that passel of cowboy – and cowgirl – relatives we mentioned to help shape the character of Tucker, as he does battle against the undead in the name of love in modern Wyoming in The Cowboy and Vampire Collection. Not a single one of these cowboys, nor Tucker, would ever be caught dead stripping out of their shirts to shoot come hither looks from the cover of “Doing It with Our Boots on, Volume 5,” but we’d wager that these cowboys of lore would be secretly prideful to know the modern myth automatically assumes that they’re mighty fit and worthy of passionate idealizing. Plus, it’s a big modern welcoming (sort of) west. Everyone can rope a cowboy or heroine, no matter what the genre. Each of us did.