The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
Penguin Press HC, The, 2008
224 pp., $23.95
Reviewed by Rachel DiCarlo Currie
Though he died at 25, Colton H. Bryant accomplished all the goals he set for himself. He lived like a roughneck and a cowboy, fell in love and married, and followed his father to work on Wyoming's treacherous oil rigs. "I'm oil–field trash," he'd tell his wife when she'd tire of the weeks he spent away from home or agonize about the danger. "It's what I do."
Alexandra Fuller, author of the acclaimed memoirs Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and Scribbling the Cat, learned of Colton Bryant when she came across his obituary several years ago. She had been researching an article about the oil rigs of the Great Plains, but decided instead to write her third book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, an anecdotal sketch of Bryant's life. Written in the simple prose of a fable, the book nevertheless resists the kitsch that weighs many such tales down. Fuller's ear for dialogue is as flawless here as it was in her accounts of Africa.
Born in his parents' car going 70 miles an hour on the way to the hospital, Bryant descended from a line of no–nonsense, hardscrabble westerners. He got his name when his mother held him up to a lightpost and announced a boy. "Here's the colt you've been pestering me for," his father replied.
Bryant was raised in a Mormon household with a sweet–but–tough mother, an older brother who routinely beat him up but who showed him how to hunt and dress deer, and two sisters who adored him. Most important to Bryant was his father, Bill, "a high–altitude, big–sky, oil–drilling, saddle–bronc riding monk" who left home at 16 to break colts and chase rodeos.
Like his father, Bryant wasn't cut out for indoor pursuits. He pushed himself through high school by daydreaming about the things he'd rather be doing, like shooting jackrabbits, driving his truck, or riding his horse Cocoa. He took special education classes, Fuller writes "because of the way his brain worked like a saddle bronc, fired up for eight seconds maximum and then bolting for the rails, looking for a way out of the arena."
One pack of boys, the "K–Mart cowboys"—so called because though they fancied themselves as wild tough guys they'd never be the real thing—ridiculed him for being a "retard." In Bryant's part of America, learning to console oneself is essential. The advice most often dispensed is "Cowboy up, cupcake"—a roundabout way of saying "Toughen up." He constantly reminded himself of his maxim, "Mind over matter. I don't mind, so it don't matter." His dominant characteristics were his sweet nature, simple charm, and small–town sensibilities, but he could also be naïve and reckless—qualities which foreshadow his death throughout the book.
Fuller describes an impromptu nighttime hunting trip during which Bryant and two friends spotted a family of geese floating on a lake. When they shot one and it tipped over in the deep part of the lake, bobbing along the near–frozen black water, Bryant's friends reeled off a list of reasons why he shouldn't go after it—including that he couldn't swim. Instead, he waded in after it, nearly freezing to death. Another time he almost chopped his foot in half with an ax, but refused to enter a neighbor's house for help because he didn't want all the blood to get on their carpet. On the rigs, he worked brutal 20–hour shifts (straight through the night) in the searing heat or bitter cold, the wind constantly whipping the crews. When he got time off, he'd chug a few cans of Mountain Dew and drive the three hours home.
Two years after he died, people are still drawn to Bryant. Strangers visit his grave, a shrine piled high with tins of tobacco and everything related to guns, hunting, fishing, horses, cowboys, and trucks. His innocence seems to absorb the sins committed against so many of those who died the same way.
Bryant's life is ultimately tragic, but his story is not written as a tragedy or a cautionary tale. And Fuller avoids going overboard in excoriating big oil or delving into the politics of oil companies—though she does make clear that a few thousand dollars of safety equipment would have saved his life. Herself at home in rugged territory while growing up on an African farm, Fuller clearly found kindred spirits in Bryant and his people.
Rachel DiCarlo Currie is managing editor of the Hudson Institute.
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