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Hard men and hard lives: how the stoical western male ethic falls short of meaning or virtue.

Dream Wheels Richard Wagamese Doubleday Canada 398 pages, hardcover ISBN 9780385661997

Richard Wagamese's third novel, Dream Wheels, tells the story of a delinquent black youth and his mother who come into contact with a newly crippled but legendary First Nations bull rider and his prosperous ranch rodeo family. Both young men are wounded and angry and overwhelmed by loss, and the novel tells the story of how they come to teach and heal each other. Dream Wheels is also meant as a paean to rodeo and the rodeo cowboy, both of which Wagamese treats in terms bordering on the mythological. Although there are plenty of western novels out there, from the endless Louis L'Amour series to Cormac McCarthy's startling books, many of which extol the virtues of the cowboy ideal of manhood, Wagamese's approach is an original one in that he combines that idea of manliness with First Nations teachings, and rests them both solidly on the imperative of a true relationship with land.


The story is chiefly about that western code of manhood, and how Joe Willie Wolfchild, the young cowboy who has been crippled by a bull and can't rodeo anymore, struggles to find acceptance and a measure of peace within that code, and how, taken alone, it ultimately fails him. His reluctant friend, the ex-con (although only 17), also has to learn the ways in which the code--in his case the code of the street and the prison, remarkably similar to the one Joe Willie has lived by in rodeo life--will never serve him fully in his healing. It is this process of growing out of an unyielding armour that allows no one near, that accepts no help, that is the underlying constant of the novel, and that is the real story.

My problem in reviewing this book was that I could not determine if Wagamese was celebrating this cowboy ethic, or if he disliked it and wanted to show its weakness. In the end, I believe he is conflicted on this point: he understands the ethic thoroughly and strongly admires it, even while his intellect tells him that it is incomplete and inadequate, that no man pushed to the extremities his characters have been can hope to heal and grow with only that ethic as a guide.

Because the novel dwells so minutely and with such passionate admiration on the rodeo and the act of riding a bull, no review would be complete without an examination of Wagamese's reverence for it. He describes the movement of both bull and man, individually and together, with precision and beauty, and some of this writing is brilliant. The only other writer I can think of who has tried to do this is Thomas McGuane writing about training a horse, and he turned to technical words to do it, mystifying his reader and teaching nothing much about horse training. Or a comparison might be made with Ernest Hemingway's puzzling (to this reader, anyway) fascination with bull fighting. Wagamese's interest in the act of bull riding lies, as did Hemingway's, in the contest of wills and even souls between the bull and the cowboy, and in the transcendence that can sometimes occur. Finally, Dream Wheels is also about a man finding a way to be a part of the wild, a place the author seems to believe the male soul always seeks.

Now that the rodeo has been pretty much forced into cleaning up its act, where animals are endangered and often hurt and sometimes killed, I have nothing against rodeo itself and am full of admiration for the physical prowess of rodeo cowboys (and, as a woman, can't help but admire the beauty of those young men's bodies). But also, as a woman living close to that culture, I have grown to dislike rodeo cowboys because of what now seems to me to be a false, aw-shucks humility--self-deceiving because it masks a huge, unrecognized vanity--and also because of that impenetrable certainty that physical courage is all that makes up a man.

Moreover, the mystery with which Wagamese invests the act of bull riding I find excessive and sometimes grandiose. I reject that mystery--that mythologizing of both bull and man, and of the rodeo itself--because it is so inextricably tied up with the western ethic of manliness, a way of being a man that I recognize from 30 years lived in the midst of it. It is my observation that that ethic does immense damage, not just to the boys raised in it, but to everybody else around them as well, wives and mothers in particular, who must buy into it, no matter how much it is against their own interests.

Everybody wants to know why bull riders go back over and over again, while wearing casts or neck braces or while still half-crippled by the last bull. In the context of the successful bull ride, Wagamese uses the word "glory" three times in the novel, although he does not explain or dwell on it or give it sufficient weight. Of course, glory is part of what the riders are after, what they risk their lives for; I can't imagine a bull rider who does not want to be the bull-riding champion.

But there is more than that: rodeo is often now described as an extreme sport. I once heard a prize-winning rodeo cowboy say on television "just like any other extreme sport," and I thought for once I'd heard one of them say the truth. It is the thrill, a kind of addiction to danger, that draws so many of them and has them coming back after deep bruising, torn muscles and ligaments, punctured lungs and spleens and broken bones--ruining their bodies for anything else, and sometimes their minds as well.

This is, in my view, taking things too far; it is crossing some invisible line between proving your worth and losing track of life itself. It is fundamentally irrational. The cowboy who described rodeo as an extreme sport on television had discovered an easy explanation that sufficed to get questioners off his back. Wagamese is struggling in this novel to explain what that cowboy really thought about his sport and could not articulate. He makes a valiant attempt at that explanation, but I remain unconvinced.

That said (an argument I will never win and don't even dare try here at home in the presence of local men, who would wither me with scorn and say nasty things about my late husband behind my back), there is a lot of staring in this novel, a lot of eyes meeting eyes, a lot of the combative gaze, the assaultive gaze, and the first one to look away clearly the weaker. I could not always fully separate the practised, cool, in-your-face swagger of the young ex-con from the rigid self-containment of the crippled bull rider. They blend together in the novel, and both of them are facades constructed to resemble the true calm of the First Nations people who have reached a level of secure selfhood through spiritual trials met head on, and the enlightenment that can come with that tremendous and humble effort.

Having been guilty of trying to convey meaning in my early fiction by using that eyes-meeting-eyes scenario--and despite the fact that in real life this is something that happens very often--I would suggest to this writer there are other ways of transmitting what he wants to tell his reader, and just as succinctly and as powerfully. Wagamese needs to stretch himself and to explore what these might be. I am aware that in the world he is reflecting, the gaze takes the place of speech among the not-so-articulate, among those for whom speech has proven to convey only abuse, only lies. But I was not confident that Wagamese had figured out how to separate the hard stare designed to mask fear from the clear-eyed gaze of the spiritually secure. He seems to have opted for an easy detail that conveys many conflicting messages.

Or am I wrong about this? Perhaps what I have read is a novel by a man who is genuinely struggling to deconstruct his own worldview, who, while still half in love with it, knows that it can't work but wants, nonetheless, to explain it to his readers. In my observation, men only become the kind of men depicted in this novel if they have had hard lives with too little love and too much violence, who live in a culture where emotions must never be shown, or feelings ever expressed verbally. Wagamese has tried to show men from this ethic growing into a wider manhood, but it is not really clear that Joe Willie or Aiden Hartley understand what is contributing to their slow steps toward redemption. Dream Wheels reduces this journey to the essence of the healing and teaching power of land and of family, while I think it is both solitary and individual and can take place anywhere--even in the midst of the urban jungle.

It is in talking about the true meaning of land for those who have come to the understanding through many centuries of life on it that Wagamese is most successful. What I read as grandiosity and overblown sentiments about manhood disappear when he writes of what his characters yearn for and find on the land.
 It's constant. It sits there and remains, and despite
 all the things we might ever do to it, stays the
 same, always feels the same on your feet, the wind
 always a little sharper in the lungs, the smell of it
 richer and older than anything you ever smelled.

It is the land that teaches Joe Willie a softening that the code by itself will not allow.
 He'd never been a spiritual man. Rather, Joe Willie
 believed that life was about clenching the teeth
 and making things happen, will bent to power,
 action spurred by desire. But here he felt pause.
 Nin-din-away-mah-john-ee-dog. [The latter
 phrase from Ojibway, meaning "All my relations."]

There are plot problems in this novel: that the police officer who tries to help the 15-year-old Aiden Hartley just happens to be very close to the ranch rodeo-riding First Nations family, the Wolfchilds, who just happen to be about the best people around, is just a little too convenient for this reader. (That the police officer disappears from the narrative in the last quarter of the book underlines his mere utility in the novel.) That the justice system would not extend Aiden's prison term after his vicious assault on another incarcerated boy struck me as unlikely. That Aiden and his mother are black (not white or First Nations) was never more than an interesting side note calling for speculation as to why Wagamese might have made this choice.

Wagamese writes a number of female characters, most notably the young black mother, Claire, child of an addict and herself a former addict, living with her 15-year-old son in the house of a well-off white man who assaults her viciously on a daily basis. The story tells of her arriving at a determination to leave this and all such "relationship(s)" behind forever. It is a brave move on Wagamese's part to try to understand what such a woman is made of and what she goes through, but ultimately it fails as he puts all his real energy and understanding into the characters of the two young men.

Wagamese, as other First Nations writers often do, is keen on explaining the First Nations belief systems to the reader--the role of animals in creation, the immense value of tradition, of family, and the beliefs in and about land. Interesting as this is--and I have often found it fascinating--novels should not be directly didactic. Their true purpose, or perhaps it isn't even a purpose but merely an effect of the form as art, is to illuminate the world. Wagamese needs to find a place within himself where he writes out of that worldview without quibble or explanation, guiding the reader subtly into understanding.

But, no matter what criticisms I might offer, no matter how angered I am by that stare-and-swagger-aggressive-silence kind of masculinity, I want to end this review positively because Wagamese is a writer. His prose is lush and beautiful, rhythmic, precise, and filled with passion and the pure love of the beauty of language, love of a sort that all writers must have, or fail:
 The mountains hard against the clear blue sky
 scalloped the length of the valley, and the variant
 colours of the rock, the long, V-shaped funnelling
 of slides, the poked peninsulas of trees and the
 undulating suggestion of lesser, rounded humps
 of peaks before them gave it a wild kinetic energy,
 an intensity humming in the stillness as though
 all of it, the mountains, the valley, the sky, was
 vibrating with the effort of holding itself in.

Harness these marvellous gifts to a wider view of the world, and Richard Wagamese will make his mark on Canadian fiction. I have no doubt that with each novel his urge to say too much will alleviate, his plots will gain in sophistication, and he will begin to deal not with a mythical world of street-and-rodeo manhood, but with a purer world, stripped of colour markers and hidebound, limiting philosophies.

Wouldn't it be something if The Great Canadian Novel we've all been waiting for these many years (and seem to be expecting to come out of Toronto or maybe Newfoundland) should in the end be written by an Ojibway from a remote northern Ontario reserve who now calls Kamloops home? After reading Dream Wheels and seeing Wagamese's writerly gifts, I wouldn't be surprised.

Sharon Butala is the author of 15 books of fiction and non-fiction. She is currently working on The Sweetest Face on Earth: Meditation on a Murder, about the unsolved 1962 murder in Saskatoon of a school friend.
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Title Annotation:Dream Wheels
Author:Butala, Sharon
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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