The Good Old Boys by Elmer Kelton

The Good Old BoysThe Good Old Boys by Elmer Kelton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My very first western, chosen for a reading challenge where two participants get each other to read a genre the one enjoys and the other avoids. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, other than an encounter with the lone ranger archetype, easily defined good guys and bad guys, and quirky language I’d come across in the movies. This turned out to be pretty accurate. Hewey Calloway, a classic commitment-phobic, freedom-loving cowboy returns to his brother Walter’s home to visit the family he’s been missing. Hewey’s been roaming free for so long that he’s been given up for dead, but he’s warmly welcomed, except by his sister-in-law Eve, and his oldest nephew Cotton. Cotton is a typically taciturn teenager, struggling with the growing differences between himself and his family. Eve and Hewey have never really gotten along as his adventurous lifestyle has always clashed with her industrious homemaking. The Calloways are facing a particularly challenging year – the loan they’ve taken out from the bank will have to be repaid soon, and the bankers are waiting eagerly for any misfortune that will allow them to repossess the farm and make cheap, desperate employees out of Walter and his sons.

This family drama sets the stage for the tale ahead. The Good Old Boys is not the “wild wild west” adventure that generally characterises the genre (at least, in terms of the little I know about it). It’s a slow-paced but entertaining story set in a time when life is often hard but the west is no longer so wild – the Native American Indians have been wiped out, and the land is being claimed and fenced off. Consequently, it’s not Indians and outlaws that Hewey has to worry about. Instead he fears fences, automobiles, and the growth of towns and cities – the signs of a modernizing economy that’s curbing the freedom that characterizes his existence, and has no place for wandering cowboys. Hewey’s generation is aging, and it doesn’t look like there are any young cowboys to follow them. The “good old boys” may well become the “good for nothin’ old boys”, as Eve puts it, unless they give up their freedom, settle down, and get jobs. Hewey’s fears about modernization and settling down constitute the novel’s main themes, and these are neatly embodied in his relationships with Eve and Cotton.

Perhaps the only person Hewey fears, Eve is a tough woman who has successfully ‘tamed’ Walter, making a hard-working farmer out of a commitment-phobic cowboy. She is admittedly harsh at times, but in more tender moments is revealed to be a person who is simply making the best of a difficult situation. As a woman she can never have the lone ranger lifestyle. For her, survival requires hard work and a husband. Eve fears Hewey as much as he does her because he might tempt Walter away from farm and family life, leaving her destitute. She would like to him to settle down, not only for her own peace of mind, but also so that Hewey won’t come to the miserable end she forsees for him: dying alone, far from home, where he can expect little more than a pauper’s burial and his family might never hear of his demise.

Cotton has a different gripe with Hewey. Excited and optimistic about technological progress, Cotton is breaking away from the previous generation. He’s fascinated by automobiles and other modern machinery. At night, he often chooses to read about science and mechanics, rather than sit around talking to his family. He no longer shows any interest in Hewey, with his exaggerated tales and false promises. Hewey is an unabashed bullshitter, embellishing stories with lies to make them more interesting, or making sociable promises that he soon forgets. As my partner in this reading challenge suggested, this is just a part of the cowboy culture. Cotton, however, has been hurt by Hewey’s lies, and now finds his uncle’s tall tales frustrating. In addition, he just doesn’t care about the lifestyle those stories glorify: he’s interested in the future, “need[ing:] and want[ing:] little from what had gone by” (283).

Hewey on the other hand, doesn’t understand Cotton’s fascination with cars – in his opinion, a horse travels as fast as a man would ever want to go and the automobile is just a noisy, dirty, fad that will never catch on. His own experiences with modernization are negative: an authoritarian sheriff who pistol-whips Hewey for riding down an upmarket residential street, an arrogant, rich car owner, a bank that threatens his family with homelessness. All these are associated with the elitism that gives power to those with money and oppresses those without it (like Walter and Eve).

In the final third of the novel Kelton picks up the pace, heightens the drama, and resolves Hewey’s conflicts in a manner that acknowledges the inevitable march of progress, but gives the good old boys a last victory. The ending is unsurprisingly happy, but feels a bit sad too, like a nice gesture given in pity for a lifestyle that no longer exists. It’s a nostalgic tribute to the cowboy, to the freedom he can never have again, to the adventures that won’t be relived, except in books and movies.

I have to admit that I started this novel thinking that a western would probably be silly and possibly boring too. The Good Old Boys was neither. It certainly has its quirks (like men named ‘Snort’ and ‘Fat’), but it’s a strong, entertaining story and a convincing portrayal of American life at the beginning of the twentieth century. The themes and character dynamics kept me interested despite the slow pace in the first two thirds, and although the happy ending was mostly predictable it was also pleasant.

However, this is not a genre I’ll continue to read. I think a key element to enjoying a western is having a sense of nostalgia or sentiment for life in the early American west. As a horse-lover, I’ve always thought it would be really cool to travel on horseback, but other than that living in the society of the western sounds like a nightmare. It’s too hot, too conservative, a tad xenophobic, being a cowboy is mostly boring and dirty (even Hewey admits he has to bullshit to make cowboy’s life as exciting as it’s assumed to be), being a farmer is backbreaking. Consequently, even though I liked The Good Old Boys, it will remain the lone ranger of my western reading experience.


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