William Kittredge brings a wagon load of morality tales in his sobering, but seldom sober, aching, but admiring, essays on the American West.
Of the 14 pieces included in The Next Rodeo, 12 were previously published. Readers familiar with Kittredge will recognize trademark concerns--personal experience entwined with the mythologies of the West; gender roles and the nature of men; destruction wrought on the land by white expansion, including that of his own family. Sliced through it all is a jagged restlessness of soul. Kittredge, who retired as a regents professor after teaching creative writing and English at the University of Montana for 29 years, writes like a model of creative nonfiction best practices: The essays are bound together by story, collaged, blending the personal, historical, conservationist-political and literary philosophic. A little ironic, very authentic, his voice reads like someone that's seen some things.
Kittredge was born into privilege, and reconciling that to democratic fairness seems a fundamental struggle of his adult life. Reared on a large cattle ranch in southeastern Oregon, he was slated to be its third-generation head, and, after agricultural college and a stint in the military, he was for a few years. But temperament and extended family economics made that untenable. The land was sold, and Kittredge took off for Iowa's writing program. When he returned west to teach and write, his past and the West would be the lode he'd mine.
He opens this book with "Home," offering isolated childhood scenes that present his southeastern Oregon as "the actual world ... (t)he rest of creation ... (as) distant as news on the radio." At 13, out for a month with a chuck-wagon cattle crew, he heard a report that an entire Japanese city had been blown up, but nobody believed it. An early hero is featured in this essay--a party brawler of the highest order--along with the notion of the West providing possibility for the adventurous or unfulfilled.
It's that possibility he calls "the oldest American story," of Huck Finn "lighting out for territory" and John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, circumnavigating 1,000 miles of Tetons alone. It was the promise of paradise for the taking.
The titles of these essays bundle them loosely into thematic individual entities--"Buckaroos," "Who Owns the West," "Leaving the Ranch," "Redneck Secrets," "White People in Paradise"--but the subjects spill over, with Kittredge's philosophies and experiences recursive and re-examined.
Central and recurring in his work are paradoxes--the MC Ranch boss' son promoting it as a nature preserve; the nature-lover who sets off on a sunny morning and gets derailed to a buzzed tour of dark taverns.
And there is much "buzzed" in this collection. Kittredge appears to treat with booze and drugs a psychological "dis-ease" to which he refers but which he does not detail. In one memorable line from "Who Owns the West," however, he describes being "numb with dread," sad about feeling "nothing but terror," and he calls it craziness.
"There is no metaphor for that condition," he writes. "It is precisely like nothing."
Kittredge's searches for role models, for purpose, center, home and connection, lead him to the celebration of the common man, to story, history, the natural world. He elevates the redneck and writes generously about other writers.
Women get short shrift, however, in The Last Rodeo. They tend to be "good," servicing or left behind. His first wife "got herself pregnant"; even Kittredge acknowledges the sexism implicit in this attitude.
The "new" essays are not as complex or illuminating as the "selected" in this collection, but Kittredge uses them to call for healing and restoration of the land, and enfranchisement of the disenfranchised of society. As one who has lived from the time of draft-horse plowing to the ironic postmodern world, he, nonetheless, is someone to heed. And his lost cowboy is one to mourn.