Erin McCabe finds a lot to appreciate about Alyson Hagy’s 2012 novel about men and horses, the American West, and the dream of a ticket out.
I included Boleto by Alyson Hagy in last week’s Holiday Gift Guide, but I loved this novel so much I thought it deserved more than just a paragraph. The story begins with Will Testerman, the 23 year old youngest son of a small-time rancher, going to look at a promising young filly—a horse he hopes will be his ticket out of the ranch life he doesn’t really want and an escape from his father’s low expectations.
The opening alone lets you know you are in the hands of someone who knows and loves horses: “She was a gift, though he did not think of her that way for a long time…. She was halter broke, and trailer broke, and she had been wormed for the spring. Someone had taken a rasp to her feet.” It’s nothing impressive, and yet I was impressed. I felt that way the whole rest of the novel, which dragged me right through it even though this is not a page turner and in the end, the book poses more questions than it answers. I just really wanted to know what would happen to Will and his filly and whether Will would manage to overcome all the tantalizingly hinted-at failures in his past.
If I had to stick Boleto in a genre, I guess I’d have to call it a literary Western. But that feels inaccurate. Perhaps because this book doesn’t give us Romantic idea of the ruggedly handsome lone cowboy riding the range—the Marlboro Man (minus the smokes), if you will—or John Wayne and all that comes with him. What Hagy does is give us a sympathetic character in Will—someone who has integrity but is tested.
Hagy also has a beautiful, insightful way of describing the landscape. She manages to illuminate the characters by showing us the way in which they are part of the land and have been shaped by it. With practical and simple language, she creates a gorgeous, rich, textured experience for the reader, akin to other “Western” writers like Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain) and Cormac McCarthy (All The Pretty Horses).
Hagy also writes about horses in a way that is satisfyingly deep and respectful. Each setting (the Testerman ranch, the dude ranch where Will takes a job for the summer, the polo farm in Southern California) is replete with accurate details, and yet the horse-y-ness is not on display; it’s not for show. It’s what I imagine might be the result if George Morris gave advice for novels—the details matter but only so that you focus on what’s important: the relationships between horses and people and money.
Because of this, Hagy’s unsentimental and yet finely observed descriptions are revealing. For instance, as Will tells his new filly stories to help calm her, he explains about the bull and one of his brother’s geldings, “Bison had the cranky temperament you often saw in a gelding that was part of a small herd.” I read that line and thought, holy smokes! That explains the pony in the pasture whom we sometimes (affectionately) refer to as “the crab bag.” But I also loved the way this moment built Will’s character—he’s someone who tells his new horse stories– and revealed something about the family dynamics between Will and his brothers.
The novel is full of this kind of thing—where it’s clear Hagy trusts her readers to connect the dots while she allows her characters to struggle. Which is to say, this book is not a happy story, but anyone who appreciates a more literary read will find a lot to chew on here.
Erin McCabe rides two OTTB mares and hopes to someday soon get back to competing at horse trials. Her first novel, I Shall Be Near To You, is forthcoming from Crown Publishing in January 2014. You can learn more at erinlindsaymccabe.com.