Aaron Latham’s new novel, Code of the West (Simon and Schuster),takes the Texas-born author back to his roots, sort of. The 57-year-old Latham is a reluctant cowboy, having lived all of his adult life on the East Coast. Now he returns to shit-kicker country, where, ironically, his career seems to be centered on Texas cowboyana— reflected most famously in a longish piece of journalism that was published in Esquire back in 1978. It was called “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit.” Two years later the film Urban Cowboy, co-written by Latham and director James Bridges, launched a national craze. Suburban wannabe cowpersons outfitted themselves in hats and pearl-buttoned shirts and learned to do-si-do and do the cotton-eyed Joe. The audience for Texas chic moved on, but in a sense Latham didn’t. The dust jacket of his new novel IDs him as the author of Urban Cowboy, and there he remains, stuck at Gilley’s, the Houston honky-tonk featured in the movie (long since burned to the ground), in those halcyon days when John Travolta was skinny, Debra Winger was a hottie, and another Southern governor was mooning philosophically around the White House.
Born and raised in Spur (population: 1,500), about seventy miles east of Lubbock, Latham describes the place pretty accurately in his sentimental memoir about his father’s second marriage, The Ballad of Gussie & Clyde (1997), as “that godforsaken corner of West Texas which is the last stronghold of real cowboys, cattle ranches, rattlesnakes, and tarantula stampedes …”
This is country, and for sensitive youths, escape to one of the coasts is a résumé requirement. Latham went east, first to Amherst College, then to Princeton, where, in 1970, he wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on F. Scott Fitzgerald. His first book, Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, came out the next year. The theme of the artist in thrall to crass dream merchants, memorably reflected in Fitzgerald’s melancholy career writing for the movies, seemed to have a personal appeal for the fledgling author.
Latham stayed in the East and went to work as an editor for Esquire in the early seventies, in the heady days of the New Journalism. Living in New York, he