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 played on a softball team with two of his heroes, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe; edited their pieces; and talked to them about the New Journalism. They pointed out the obvious, that it essentially consisted of applying the devices of fiction—narrative voice, dialogue, scenes—to nonfiction reportage. Latham listened and learned, and he thought he found something missing in their catalog of techniques. “I came to feel,” he later wrote, “that they were leaving out an important one. Namely, the love story.”
Moving to New York magazine, Latham began to try his own hand at jazzing up journalism. He would look for love in all the right places. He found it in his own life before he found it in his work. During the height of the Watergate frenzy, Latham met a young CBS reporter named Lesley Stahl. They married in 1977, and she went on, of course, to become a glamorous White House correspondent and a longtime darling of Sixty Minutes. In the shadow of her celebrity, her husband must sometimes feel as though he’s suffering from a mild case of syndrome.
Their marriage is not, as one might think, a yoking of unlike political ideologies: the conservative Texas cowboy and the classy, East Coast girls’-school liberal. Latham is completely a child of the sixties and mentions proudly in a biographical sketch that “he has done a lot of marching.” You could seat him next to Mike Wallace at a dinner party and they’d purr like kittens.
In 1978 Latham’s career received its biggest boost when Esquire honcho Clay Felker sent him to Gilley’s to check out the new Western scene. Walking into the vast club, he has written, he felt simultaneously “like a native son, and . . . like Margaret Mead stepping ashore in Samoa for the first time.” “Urban Cowboy” seemed exciting back then, with its short, punchy urgency, its gritty repetitions of “twang-twang” (“Dew fell in love with Betty at Gilley’s, twang-twang”), its closely observed details of the petrochemical lives of working-class Texans who found their new frontier inside the confines of a beer joint gone mega—”the Great Plains brought indoors,” as he wrote in the novelization that followed the film. Latham rode the metaphors as hard as his heroes rode the honky-tonk’s mechanical bull: “Now the urban cowboy was ready to mount his pickup truck and ride forth to Gilley’s in search of adventure.”
The “Urban Cowboy” model of immersion in a subculture became Latham’s personal journalistic trademark. He applied the method to four-wheel-drive vehicles and the people who own them, an unpromising topic, but then he hit upon another group that had pizzazz. He hung out with fitness buffs in California and wrote “Perfect!” an investigation of the health-club scene, which he compared to a singles bar. The movie version teamed up Latham, Bridges, and Travolta once more. These stories are collected in his 1987 book, Perfect Pieces, together with some unpublished articles and other journalism, including “The Return of the Urban Cowboy,” published in Texas Monthly in 1985. In revisiting the by-then repetitive and boring lives of Dew Westbrook and Betty Helmer (the originals of Travolta’s Bud and Winger’s Sissie), Latham mused upon the myths that guided his conception of the West. Urban Cowboy, he wrote, had its mythic parallel in Cervantes: “These urban cowboys were to real cowboys what Don Quixote was to a real knight.”
Now, in Code of the West, Latham has turned from Quixote to King Arthur for inspiration in depicting the lives of Texas cowboys. The idea of knights riding the range goes back at least to Owen Wister’s 1895 essay in Harper’s, “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher.” Like Latham a century later, Wister—who wrote The Virginian (1902), the granddaddy of all shoot-’em-ups—found many connections between knights and cowboys.
Latham, however, caught the Arthur bug from another carrier. During the making of Urban Cowboy, Debra Winger advised him to read T. H. White’s voguish retelling of Arthurian legends, (1958). This inescapable sixties best-seller formed the basis for both Disney’s smash hit (1963) and the long-running Broadway musical (1960-1963). Jackie Kennedy’s post-assassination Camelot musings also kept the Arthurian flame burning.
The influence of White on Latham is clear—and not particularly salubrious. Latham seems captivated by the fey qualities of White’s King Arthur-lite version. White’s future king, nicknamed the Wart, talks to the sword and obtains advice from spirits and animals and the old necromancer, Merlyn, before drawing it out “as gently as from a scabbard.”
Sir Aaron, alas, following with dolorous results Lady Debra’s advice, has his bumpkin young king, Jimmy Goodnight, enter a thousand-dollar contest at the county fair to pull an ax from an anvil (Axcalibur?). Sayeth Goodnight: “Excuse me, O Great Anvil . . . I’ve got something to say to you. Uh. Something important. Uh. I have great respect for your strength. Uh. I hope you also have respect for my weakness. I couldn’t possibly take your ax away from you, so I won’t try, but I hope you will give it to me willingly.” “Uh” is not one of the great rhetorical advances in the centuries-old expropriation of Arthurian lore.
Latham would have done better, I believe, had he gone back to the bloody-mindedness and action-packed style of the greatest of the Arthurian chroniclers, Sir Thomas Malory, the fifteenth-century nobleman who penned while behind bars. Malory relates straightforwardly the inciting episode of young Arthur’s drawing of the sword from the stone: “And so he handled the swerd by the handels, and lightly and fiersly pulled it out of the stone . . .” This is the way a sword should be pulled from a stone.
Throughout the novel, Latham draws intermittently upon the Arthurian legend with no discernible payoffs in either characterization or theme. Goodnight founds a ranch in Palo Duro Canyon and establishes a regime of order in a wild land based upon a homemade code of the West. Revelie, his Guinevere, a well-born young woman who grew up in a mansion in Massachusetts, has the obligatory affair with Lancelot, named Loving in the novel. Calling the two main male characters Goodnight and Loving (after Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving) does not, by the way, seem like such a good idea. Latham’s figures pale in comparison with the real ranchers. Latham also restages various events from Texas history—including the slaughter of Comanche horses in Palo Duro Canyon in 1874 and the cowboy strike in the Panhandle in the 1880’s—but the coexistence of imported myth and local history is curiously lifeless.
Apart from all the historical rejiggerings and Arthurian borrowings, there is the eternal problem of language. For a novel to enter the terrain of Texas’ true lords of the plains—Larry and Cormac—a writer had better have his mojo working. Mostly, Latham does not. For one thing, the dialogue ranges from flat to embarrassing. Here is Jimmy in his earlier life as Crying Coyote, a white child raised as a Comanche. He is talking to bees (White’s Wart talks to animals too, alack and a day): “Bees, you no hurt me, I no hurt you. We be much friends.” (Ebonics would be an improvement over this silliness.) As an adult, Jimmy speaks in the accents of a hick: “Ain’t they purdy? They must be the purdiest sight I ever seen in my whole life.” Now stop that immediately.
Twenty years in the making, feels tired, as though its long time on the trail has led to a flagging of interest or control. It may be time to hang up the Spur spurs and put the cowboy lore on ice. Manhattan’s West Side, where Latham lives, is perhaps too distant from the Old West after all.