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July 5, 2017

Book Notes - Ian Stansel "The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo"

The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Ian Stansel's debut novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo is a moving and fast-paced modern Western that has earned him numerous comparisons to Cormac McCarthy.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Beautifully rendered . . . A captivating novel, elegantly spare in language but big in purpose."

In his own words, here is Ian Stansel's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo:

How is it that a guy who came of age listening to The Pixies, Fugazi, and Pavement finds himself, a couple decades on, listening most often to the classic country sounds of Willie's Roadhouse? Well, the first step, I'd say, would be to move to Texas for five or so years. By all accounts, this is where I first got infected with the country bug. We were in Houston—not exactly the lonesome prairie, but there was still a hell of a lot more steel pedal guitar than there'd been back in Chicago.

The second step would be to start writing a Western. I listen to music when I write. Often the volume is set so low that it barely registers, but it is enough to break up the suffocating silence that would otherwise be bearing down on me and my typing. More than this, though, I listen to music because it can help set mood whatever I'm working on and even influence the rhythms and cadences of prose. And when you are writing a Western, trying to describe the pounding of hooves against wild terrain, you turn off Vampire Weekend and drop the needle on some George Jones.

So here are a few of the songs inspired me as I wrote The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo.

"Born to Run" Emmylou Harris
Honestly I could have made this list all Emmylou, given that she is the world's greatest living country singer (settle down, Willie fans, I said singer). "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," "My Father's House," "Bluebird Wine," and on and on—there are so many that could fit as the novel's soundtrack. But I'll go with this song from her 1982 album Cimarron—which isn't a cover of the more famous Bruce Springsteen of the same name (though she does cheekily follow it on the album with a version of Springsteen's "The Price You Pay"). As much as I love Springsteen's anthem, the idea of an American dude lighting out for the open road isn't exactly the most original notion. I much prefer the idea of a woman being "born to run." And this same interest in flipping the gender script is partly what drove me to build the character of Lena in my novel. Westerns are full of men of murderous intent. Wouldn't it be great to see a few more women dead set on vengeance?

"Pony Boy" Bruce Springsteen
On the topic of the Boss, here is the last song on Human Touch, one of Springsteen's least loved albums. I read a reviewer somewhere call this song "an embarrassment." And I suppose if you are holding it to Springsteen song standards, okay. But I see this as less of a song and more of a ditty. I also like the idea of pretty much any of the main characters in the book, drunk some late night, singing this one. It might not be a great song, but it's a pretty good drinkin' ditty.

"Buckskin Stallion" by Townes Van Zandt
This is one of two songs on this list that approaches horses with "if" clauses. There is a longing and a resignation to the "if" when Van Zandt sings "If I had a buckskin stallion / I'd tame him down and ride away." But of course he doesn't have a buckskin stallion. That's what the "if" tells us. Nor does he have what really matters, as he continues, "If I had your love forever / I'd sail into the light of day." There is something about horses that seems to point out the limitations of human existence and recalibrate our values—even if it is too late.

"If Wishes Were Horses" by Lucinda Williams
Here's our other "if," but where Van Zandt's longing is washed in cowboy poetics, Williams is far more straight-forward when she sings, "If wishes were horses, I'd have a ranch / Come on and give me another chance." I love the lack of adornment in these words, the almost child-like sing-song of the melody, the near-silliness of the rhyme. But still there is that desperate desire for something that cannot or will not return. And what better symbol for that than a horse?

"The Horse I Rode In On" Corb Lund
Much is discussed (in my book and elsewhere) about the connection between horse and rider: the communication, the understanding. What I love about this song is that it admits to the limits of this, admits that while we would love for the romantic notions to be true, there are things that the horses we ride cannot know. Lund sings, "He was a big sorrel gelding with a golden streaked mane / A silver mounted saddle and hand braided reins / He had one blue eye that was clear like the rain / But the horse I rode in on felt none of my pain." And it is that "but" where the song deviates from the more romantic old ballads. No one, the singer seems to tell us, not human nor horse, can know another completely.

"Since She Started to Ride" Jonathan Richman
How is it that Jonathan Richman, the goofball bard of Massachusetts, nails the horse world better than perhaps anyone on this list? This track, the highlight of his 1990 album Jonathan Goes Country, is filled with the humor Richman is known for, but between the smiles and winks he manages to reveal a deep understanding of what it is to fall into the horse world when he sings, "Horses, humans—if she had to rank it / You'd bet on they that canter / And them that need fly spray." Go into any barn in any part of the country and it won't take you long to find a rider who'd rank horses above humans on the likeability scale. Aside from the humor, and the fact that he is likely referring to English riding rather than Western, what sets it apart from the rest of this list is that he doesn't use horses as metaphors, but rather as literal beings in the world. A horse doesn't need to be made into something other than a horse, in a song or a book or anywhere else. After all, it is the horse-ness of horses that we first and foremost fall in love with.

"These Hills" Iris DeMent
The Last Cowboys is not just about horses. In large part it is about a man leaving the only place he has ever called home, and coming to terms with the fact that he will never return. I can see Silas singing this song to himself, with no small measure of wistfulness, as he rides away. "As a child I roamed this valley / I watched the seasons come and go / I spent many hours dreaming / On these hills that I call home." And what is there to be said of Iris DeMent's voice? It is simply transcendent.

"Goodbye Old Paint" Arthur Russell
Many singers have tried on this classic cowboy song, but I'm choosing what is perhaps the most surprising version. Arthur Russell trained as a cellist and worked mainly in experimental styles—often playing behind his friend Allen Ginsburg when the poet read his work—before devoting much of his energy to music for the dance floor. This then would seem to make him an unlikely candidate to take on a song whose central, loping refrain is "Goodbye old paint / I'm leaving Cheyenne." But Russell's version takes the template of the classic cowboy-and-horse ballad and lets it become something wholly different. Beginning with over two minutes of mournful cello and flute, the song immediately undercuts any expectations for a more conventional campfire tune. When Russell's voice finally comes in, it is accompanied not only by acoustic guitar, but even more prominently by a tabla drum. What Russell does with this song is one small example of what art should do to and with traditional forms, be it a cowboy song, a Western novel, or anything else. Art does not seek to repeat what has already been made. It seeks to make the world anew.

Ian Stansel and The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo links:

BookPage review
Kirkus Review
Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Everybody's Irish

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