Wednesday, November 08, 2006
NIGEL COX'S "THE COWBOY DOG" - OUR FIRST LITERARY WESTERN NOVEL?
In "Tarzan Presley" (V.U.P.2004) Nigel Cox had Tarzan and the apes living in an isolated tract of bush in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.
In his latest, and final work,"The Cowboy Dog" he has turned the North Island's volcanic plateau,(I recall learning about this in fifth form geography many years ago!),into great tracts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
Earlier this year we had been given a taste of this in SPORT 34 (http:www.sportmagazine.org) where an excerpt appeared, the whole of chapter one in fact, along with a fascinating 44 page interview with Cox by fellow author Damien Wilkins.
Cox died in July this year just a few months after that issue of SPORT was published.
A mixture of courage, determination and stubborness saw him complete the final draft of "The Cowboy Dog" as well as put in a wheelchair appearance at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in Auckland, where his previous title, "Responsibility", was runner up in the Deutz Medal.He made a gallant acceptance speech which was received with a standing ovation from all present. He died a week later and is widely mourned by the New Zealand literary community, his many friends and his family.
Earlier today I talked to his publisher at Victoria University Press,Fergus Barrowman:
One of the noticeable things about the six Cox novels is that everyone
of them is totally different to the other, each one a totally original idea
I agree. But at the same time, the opposite is true: there are strong
continuities and connections between the novels. The characters of Hendy in
Dirty Work and Henry Stroud in The Cowboy Dog. The wild child cast out of
paradise and into the civilised world in Tarzan Presley and The Cowboy Dog.
The love of cheap music in all his books.
Nigel was a very tough self-editor, with a horror of repeating himself
and of boring his readers. There are five or six completed novels he never
tried to get published: three early works, a sequel to Dirty Work, a long
and ambitious novel called Atlas Walker, rumours of a private eye novel...
Perhaps the published novels should be seen as distinct islands joined in a
In the Sunday Star Times last week Iain Sharp suggested that Nigel would have
polished the narrative considerably had he been granted more time, and that
as a result the work feels more like a draft than a finished work. Is this
Nigel gave this book everything he had, which is all any author can do at
any time. Possibly if he had had a bit more time it might have been a bit
longer and more polished, but then it might have been a bit less elemental
and urgent too. Rather than speculating, I'd prefer to read it as the book
it is, the book Nigel meant it to be.
In spite of its western theme and the many "bad men" that people the
story I found Nigel's style to be more lyrical and poetic than in previous
novels. e,g, "A highway vehicle collected me from the white stripe of the
roadside and carried me away" and "if ever I was to leave these lands it
would be to the great highway that I would go, to ride the mighty vehicles
and chase the bunny rabbit's tail of the broken white line" and "That night
as I lay under the stars my head tilted and rocked, as though inside it the
events of the evening were sloshing from side to side" and "Like a dark bird speeding low over the lands towards the sun, his eyes went away from me".
Yes, for a sometimes brutal and shocking book, there is a great deal of
poetic writing and tender feeling. A great deal of wisdom, I would go so far
as to say.
Those of us fortunate enough to have known Nigel know that he loved life,
he loved books and reading, and popular music,and that he loved talking about all of these things, and of course he loved his family and his mates.
At the beginning of The Cowboy Dog our 12 year old protagonist's father is killed leaving his son to fend in the world on his own.Is Nigel saying something to us here
about his own death at 54, leaving a young family behind?
Nigel's family was at the centre of his thoughts, and knowing that he
wouldn't be there to both assist and witness his children's lives was one of
the hardest things to deal with.
So here it is, "The Cowboy Dog", the final work of a New Zealand writer who had a unique style and a dedicated bunch of admirers.
The story is set in both the wild west of the volcanic plateau, with much poetic licence exercised, and in the "badlands of urban Auckland" which I guess is the book's Dodge City?
Cox skilfully uses the voice of a boy as his narrator.Chester Farlowe is only 12 years old when the story opens with the death of his Daddy and is not yet 20 when the book ends.
He has lived a sheltered and isolated life in the "west" with only his beloved Daddy for company. He has never visited a town or city, knows nothing about the opposite sex or in fact anything very much apart from the life of a cowboy.
When his Daddy dies he walks off the red-dirt family ranch and heads for Auckland by way of hitching a ride with a truckie as far as Huntly and then by jumping a train. His sense of wonderment on arrival in the city is Cox at his very best.
After many adventures and new experiences, welcome and unwelcome, Chester, by now known to his associates as Mr.Dog, decides its time to go back to the "west" and seek revenge for his father's murder.
"When I was eighteen I turned from the city and the evil that had been done to me there, and rode State Highway One down the throat of the island".
And so begins part two of the story where Chester joins a group of cowboys herding a mob of cattle in search of feed across the great desert lands of the "west".
Cox takes a considerable literary gamble here requiring his readers to believe that is is possible for the characters to move between a sort of generalised wild west of a previous time, complete with wolves, cacti, coyotes, buzzards, mesas,gunfights and much more,and the New Zealand of today.
This is both an entertaining and a challenging read.It is perhaps his most lyrical writing and it is indeed a fine final work.
I have to say that for me the Auckland pieces are quite outstanding and work better than those set in the "west" but read it yourself and see what you think.I will be interested in your comments.
I will be honoured to have it on my bookshelf along with his earlier five novels, which are:
Waiting for Einstein
Picture of Nigel Cox courtesy New Zealand Herald.
For the record Nigel Cox's publisher, and close friend, Fergus Barrowman has been the Publisher at Victoria University Press for over 21 years .Writers whose first book were published by VUP in his time include Elizabeth Knox, Barbara Anderson, Emily Perkins, Catherine Chidgey, William Brandt, Tim Corballis, Kate Duignan, Jenny Bornholdt, Dinah Hawken, Kate Camp, James Brown, Andrew Johnston, Hinemoana Baker, Tusiata Avia and many others.
He is also the Editor and Publisher of SPORT , New Zealand's premier literary journal,(in my view),which he founded in 1988.