Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Last year's book review - The Legend of Colton H. Bryant

I recently had the time to read The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller, which was released in 2008 (i.e., this review is of a book that came out last year, not a review that I did last year). I am a fan of both of Fuller's previous books -- Scribbling the Cat and Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight -- that deal with the experiences of her childhood, namely of growing up White in southern Africa in what is now Zimbabwe. In fact, the almost complete departure from those books to her most recent is probably what took me so long to read The Legend of Colton H. Bryant.

If you are wondering to yourself, "hmm, have I ever heard of Colton H. Bryant? ...doesn't ring a bell," then don't despair, because you are not supposed to have heard of him. In fact, Bryant was a common working man that met an early demise (sorry for the spoiler, but you know it is coming, and it's probably better if you're ready for it anyway), and the book covers his life. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure what led Fuller to write about Bryant, as opposed to Jim the truck driver or Donna the waitress, but when you read the story, you'll understand that she did not take on the topic haphazardly or without understanding the real circumstances in the lives of those she writes about.

Having just read Jon Krakauer's new book about the life and death of Pat Tillman, I found an interesting contrast to Fuller's book. Krakauer covers the life of an American who already had fame and fortune, and eventually gave his life for his country in the war in Afghanistan. Bryant, on the contrary, was not famous, but I think that is what makes his story important. You may still wonder, what makes this story a "legend?" I don't know what Fuller would say, but in my viewpoint, I think the legend is that of the lifestyle of the American West, and more specifically, the roles of masculinity in that culture. Thus, Bryant's story is important because he is an "everyman," a humble man with dreams, who works for a meager existence and enjoys the small things in life. It is a story about a place where people still believe dreams can come true, but for one reason or another, most often because of poverty, many dreams are cut short. I was actually struck by this brief social commentary from Fuller:
It isn't just plain poverty--an ordinary lack of money--that keeps you on the wrong side of despair. It's a whole raft of poverties--a poverty of choice and a poverty of support and a poverty that comes with the certain knowledge that no one's going to take you seriously when you're invisibly decked out in an apron, working the night shift. (p. 112)
Given the relatively short length of the book, and the fact that it is quite a fast read, I won't give away too much more, but I will say that I found the book a very worthwhile story. On a personal note, it was also quite odd to know that the drilling company Bryant worked for is based in Snyder, TX, just 30 minutes or so from where I grew up. It is also sad to recognize how little of Patterson-UTI's profits make their way into the hands of those who risk the most. This book serves as yet another call to anyone who will listen that America's most dangerous jobs remain relatively unregulated in terms of workplace safety, and thus, we continue to lose disproportionate amounts of the young and poor who have no option but to turn to jobs like this. I don't think Fuller glamorizes Bryant beyond who he actually was, but it is so well written that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that his family and friends continue to live their lives just 3 1/2 short years since his death. Fuller's book serves to tell the American story that typically doesn't have the chance to be told - the story of workers with no sick leave and no benefits, little education and few chances of moving up the socioeconomic ladder. It is not a feel good story of the American Dream, but rather a story of real Americans choosing to live life to the fullest in spite of all that is against them.

(note: image from Alexandra Fuller's Web site)

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