When Jack Worthing admits to being an orphan in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell responds, “To lose one parent may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Considering Western writers, one might say that while one cowboy memoir by age 30 may be an achievement, two by 40 comes off as self-absorption.
Perhaps what barely, or nearly, saves One Good Horse, Tom Groneberg’s sequel to 1996’s The Secret Life of Cowboys, is the way Groneberg combines elements of the classic Western tale with autobiography. Strictly speaking, One Good Horse is not a memoir; or, to be more accurate, it’s not just a memoir. The book starts with Groneberg losing his job as a ranch hand shortly after finding out that his wife Jennifer is pregnant with twins. Jobless, expecting and no longer able to call himself a cowboy, Groneberg writes, “I need a new story.” As luck would have it he discovers the biography of Teddy Blue Abbott, a whiskey-drinking cattle driver from the post-Civil War era. Teddy Blue, it turns out, lived the way Groneberg has always wanted to live. From that discovery forward, One Good Horse alternates between Groneberg’s story and Abbott’s, and somewhere in the telling Groneberg learns not how to be a cowboy so much as how to be an adult.
The lesson comes none too soon. If you’re familiar with The Secret Life of Cowboys, you know that Groneberg’s wish to belong to the American range is boyish, earnest and all-consuming. He also has the means and the requisite lunacy to chase this phantom. In this first book we learned that after acquiring a 9,600-acre ranch near Miles City, Groneberg takes his next step into Western romance by signing up for the local rodeo. He prepares by saddling up and spurring a wobbly 55-gallon drum, which he rolls back into the shop before approaching neighbors can spot him. Eager but embarrassed, Groneberg writes, “I will have a horse story of my own even if it kills me.”
Groneberg knows that land funded in part by his dad and three seconds on a bronco do not a cowboy make, but these are his best options, and he pursues them with splendid abandon. Primarily an account of losing the ranch, Cowboys succeeds because its author is courageous enough to play the fool in his own story without coaxing pity from his readers. Though at best he feels like a Western figure trapped inside quotation marks, Groneberg manages to pat himself on the back for trying and to have some laughs at his own expense.
There’s considerably less to laugh about, and fewer fantasies available in One Good Horse. The twins are born seven weeks premature, Bennett with an umbilical hernia and Avery with Down syndrome. Meanwhile, Groneberg takes one last stab at cowboy-hood by purchasing a colt and trading labor on a friend’s ranch for its board. Realizing the Western dream, if that’s still possible, will now require some imagination.
Enter Teddy Blue. While splicing Abbott’s story onto his own is no great feat of creativity, getting a reader to believe that Abbott and Groneberg belong on the same frontier is the trick of a fine writer. Rather than trying to elevate his own story by casting himself as some sort of horse whisperer, Groneberg instead portrays the sensational Abbott as a human being, recounting his exploits in sure-footed, steady-as-she-goes language.
Teddy Blue fords rapids with hundreds of longhorns, escapes the wrath of Billy the Kid, spits out a bullet and runs across the top of train cars, but the way Groneberg tells it Blue may as well be pounding a fence post into the dirt or sweeping out a stall. Believe it or not, this works. Teddy’s story registers in a way that it never could if he had been portrayed as Butch Cassidy, and Groneberg looks more like a cowboy atop his “skinny, sad mistake” of a horse than he did at the rodeo.
What’s difficult to take is Groneberg’s decision to train this colt among so many pressing obligations. There are paragraph-long apologies to the wife, some changed diapers, a fund-raiser and a trip to the physical therapist, but mostly there is either Abbott or Groneberg in the great outdoors. Given the family crisis against which Groneberg’s adventures are set, these stories amount to a tiny stained glass window in a dim, melancholy cathedral. Though it may catch the sun once in a while, the glass does little to change the light inside. The real hero in this dark space of a book is Groneberg’s wife Jennifer, off the page and at home with the kids.
Several times while narrating from the range Groneberg reflects that one’s efforts to help often go unheeded or misunderstood. Though he’s not referring to what he does for others, buying this lament without haggling makes me feel like the sucker at the bazaar. If he wants to give assistance that would be appreciated, there’s plenty to do around the house, it would seem. At these moments I wish Jennifer would emerge from the recesses of the book, grab Tom by the rhinestones and drag him back home, maybe prop him up behind a vacuum. I’m playing the scold, but this feels like the wrong time for a horse story.
Tom Groneberg appears at Fact & Fiction to read from and sign copies of One Good Horse Tuesday, April 25, at 7 PM.