Hard to Have Heroes is a novel with little literary merit. None of the characters have arcs, and the small amount of plot that seeps through doesn't occur until the final third of the book. Even at that late juncture, tension is never bothered with, and the reader never feels any fear for our protagonist or his family.
The first chapter of Hard to Have Heroes takes place a good century before the rest of the novel. It's completely unnecessary, but as the novel unfolds, it does explain author Buddy Mays' inclination to constantly travel down side roads and detours while he recounts Noah's adventures from rainy Oregon by way of bus to dry and surreal Tularosa, N.M. Noah's going to be a cowboy when he grows up. He can't wait.
Mays never hurries. He'd rather stop and describe, and just tell stories. Almost every chapter begins with a long aside, such as a biology lecture about rattlesnakes and Gila monsters. After a couple of these, the reader begins to understand that he or she is being set up for another one-liner: Mays comes off as your educated, but slightly pickled, uncle. It's as if Neil Hamburger decided to write a novel with Garrison Keillor as the narrator.
Mays' long anecdotes, on topics such as the size and speed of the jackalope, do help create a sense of the Great Southwest's weirdness (for tourists, anyway), making Heroes the literary equivalent of folk art. The author is only interested in painting a landscape of New Mexico's southern desert in Sunday comic-strip colors.
By the time Noah and his mother arrive in Tularosa and are greeted by the semi-literate, ever-mysterious Clarence William Boggs, aka Uncle Bud, you're a solid third of the way through the novel. The misery and pain of Greyhound bus travel is treated with perfect righteous fury, and it's through these details that Mays is at his sharpest. However, the novel could have easily begun when Noah and his mother arrive in Tularosa.
In Uncle Bud, Mays has created a character as big and likable as a Thomas Hart Benton mural. In fact, when Uncle Bud finally lets his nephew in on the origin of his ranch (a "kettle wrench," as Uncle Bud calls it), I couldn't help but wish the novel was told from his perspective.
Mays creates strong characters, even if the discombobulated narrative structure grows tiresome well before what little plot there is starts to peek out. The plot is simple: Right after World War II, the U.S. Army is in town and handing out checks for property for a top-secret rocket project at the nearby White Sands missile range. Although Mays' novel highlights the struggles of poor Americans displaced by the Cold War arms race, it makes light of them at the same time. The reader simply waits and waits and waits for ol' Uncle Sam to knock on Uncle Bud's door with a generous offer for his land.
An Apache named Two Knives Anna Fork shows up well before the reader feels any peril. And if the name smacks of political incorrectness, it's not the only example. Mays' crude rendering of Native Americans and Mexican Americans is perhaps saved by the less-than-complex nature of every character, not just those who happen to have brown skin. Still, it left a bad taste in my mouth, especially after the wonderful descriptions of food throughout the novel.
Mays need not worry about his book being banned by the Tucson Unified School District. Its Anglo perspective on the Southwest is firmly in place.