“No animals were harmed in the making of this film.”
If you see that disclaimer at the end of a movie, you know it was made after 1980. That’s when the Screen Actors Guild finally negotiated a contract forcing studios to let the American Humane Association oversee the treatment of animals used in film and television productions.
Read Molly Gloss’s new novel Falling From Horses and you’ll understand why animal welfare became so important to the Guild.
The story is set in the West at the end of the Great Depression. The economy is recovering in much of the country, but hard times linger in the hills of Oregon where people make a meager living from a grudging land.
Nineteen-year-old Bud Frazer has cowboyed for his parents since he was five. He’s rodeoed enough to know what broken bones feel like, and by 1938 he’s seen a lot of Saturday matinée Westerns. Believing he’s got what it takes to be a stunt rider in Hollywood, he boards a bus bound for California and meets Lily Shaw, a young woman with similar illusions about the welcome she’ll receive as a fresh new screenwriter with great ideas.
Eventually they each find work in Los Angeles. Lily reviews other people’s scripts for a small studio and quickly learns the tawdry requirements of moving up in show biz, while Bud is hired by a stable to deliver rental horses to production companies that crank out corny Westerns at the rate of one per week.
He soon finds out that the cowboy stars he once admired are jerks “who couldn’t ride for applesauce.” He discovers as well that there isn’t “a bit of glory in making those damn movies.” Worse yet, the horses he takes cares of are routinely neglected and casually abused, often injured and sometimes killed.
When Bud himself finally mounts up for the camera, he knows stunt riders are treated with almost equal indifference to their safety. It comes as no surprise when he ends up making his painful way back to his parents in Oregon – his pelvis smashed and his dreams of a glamorous life as dead as the horses at the end of a lethal action sequence.
Much of Falling From Horses reads like a memoir of an interesting time in Hollywood history written by a man determined not to shine up his account of those days with anything beyond plain facts. As such, the “memoir” works for nine or ten chapters at a time.
Occasionally, however, Bud’s voice is inexplicably replaced for several chapters with an omniscient narrative that lurches back to his parents’ early marriage and Bud’s childhood. Those passages are strangely segregated from Bud’s narration though they could easily have been recast as part of what he learns about his parents’ lives as he grows older.
A consistent voice might well have served this story better. Instead, just as the parents’ story becomes engaging, the novel returns without transition to Bud in 1938 or skips ahead several decades for long quotes from a magazine article by Lily, who all but disappears for much of the novel. And an unnecessarily snarled time-line is only part of what made this novel frustrating.
Falling from Horses is good but it could have been outstanding. The setting is fascinating. The dialog is realistic. The prose is spare but often beautiful. The characters are believable. Its psychological insight rings true. Even so, the novel’s grip stays loose from start to finish, despite many potentially dramatic moments.
There’s a fatal car accident during the opening bus trip. A friend is crippled. A horse is hit by lightning. A sister dies. There’s a violent mugging. There’s a creepy rape. Stunts end catastrophically. But all these things are seen from a distance; time has bleached away their color and emotion. The events also remain unconnected, robbing the story of tension. No plot emerges. No relationships develop.
The result is a structure that seems loosely piled up, not designed or built. And yet, paragraph by paragraph, Gloss is such a skillful writer that I came to believe that this may have been be a deliberate choice. Maybe the medium really is the message.
“Things happen,” Bud’s father observes. “You make peace with what you can’t help.”
Perhaps Falling From Horse is meant to reflect the sense of Depression-era ranchers that life isn’t a story – it’s just one damn thing after another. These stoics don’t look for meaning in tragedy. They suffer deeply, but without comment. They endure pain and hardship. They go back to work as soon as they can hobble out of the hospital.
That’s the cowboy way, and that might be precisely what the author wanted to convey.
Mary Doria Russell is the author of five novels, including The Sparrow, Dreamers of the Day, and Doc. Her sixth novel, Epitaph, will be published in March of 2015.