Each week, printing presses vomit reams upon reams of biographies and memoirs about the rich, the famous, and a dubious combination of the two (hello, Paris Hilton!). Publishers know readers love to immerse themselves in the lives of Those Who Are Not like the Rest of Us. For the space of a few hundred pages, we vicariously lap up the titillating adventures of French chefs, Revolutionary War heroes, golf pros, not-old-enough-to-vote pop singers, and White House press secretaries. But what of the humble, blue-collar American? What modern Boswell will write of the average life in as careful detail as others would of John Adams or Gene Simmons?
Alexandra Fuller has done just that in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, an account of a Wyoming roughneck’s short, happy life. Just as she did in her own memoirs of life in Africa, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Scribbling the Cat, Fuller tells Colton’s story in a parade of impressionistic scenes that are as much about the landscape as they are about the wide-eyed oil rigger who walks through it. In the book’s opening sentences, Fuller writes: “This is the story of Colton H. Bryant and of the land that grew him. And since this is Wyoming, this story is a Western with a full cast of gun-toting boy heroes from the outskirts of town and city-shoddy villains from head office.”
Colton, the unlikely hero at the center of the book, is no John Wayne, no Gary Cooper. Raised in the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming, he loves hunting and fishing, idolizes his father (also an oil rigger), swigs Mountain Dew by the gallon, marries young, drives a Ford pickup, and works hard to provide for his family. There’s nothing flashy or extraordinary about this Wyoming boy, and his biographer plays it straight nearly every step of the way. Fuller writes with a colloquial style, as if she’s talking her way through a story with readers as rapt listeners. It’s a quality that’s been heightened and refined since her equally pitch-perfect Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Now, stepping outside of her own life, Fuller bottles the essence of a young American male pitted against the unforgiving landscape where “a person could evaporate?.hide in the snow-blown creases that make up the endless quality of Wyoming’s open spaces. You might look all your life and never find a man.”
Fuller found her man several years ago while doing research for a New Yorker article about the social, economic, and environmental impact of the natural gas industry. She couldn’t have found a better David to provide contrast with Goliath-sized oil companies. Despite the “legend” of the title, Colton is not larger than life, just larger than his own life. Energetic, unflappable, and recklessly brave, he bounces through the book like a human pinball. Though he’s never officially diagnosed, he exhibits all the signs of attention deficit disorder. Fuller tells us his brain works
like a saddle bronc, fired up for eight seconds maximum and then bolting around the rails looking for a way out of the arena. Even on Ritalin, Colton has a way of tearing out of the chute, firing with all hooves at once. Colton doesn’t have the gear between flat out and stopped. He doesn’t have speed perception — the way other people feel alarmed when they’re going too fast, Colton feels alarmed when he isn’t moving fast enough.
In this way, he packs a big life in a short span of time, arms flailing, legs pinwheeling, taking chances where a more reasonable person might hesitate, always plunging forward like a horse out of the rodeo chute.
His simple kind-heartedness may eventually grate on cynics’ nerves or readers who want a little shadow with their sunny characters. However, by the end of the book, no matter how hard or soft your heart, it’s hard to shake Colton from your mind. If nothing else, the golly-gee expression “Holy cow!” will stick in your head like a skipping record, as will Colton’s favorite phrase: “Mind over matter — I don’t mind so it don’t matter.”
In drawing Colton and other characters, Fuller displays her allegiance to the spirit of Charles Dickens; the book delivers full-fleshed portraits (bordering on caricatures) which in the same breath tell us as much about the inner person as the outer appearance. Here, for instance, is her verbal snapshot of Colton’s father:
It would be a clich? and also not entirely accurate to say that Bill looks weather-beaten, because he doesn’t look beaten by the weather, or by anything else. So it might be better to say that Bill is a man uncovered by weather — blown and rained and sunned and snowed — to the essence of himself, more and more perfectly grained with every passing year. Stripped of unnecessary flesh in this way, he hangs faultlessly on his own bones, so self-contained that he couldn’t lose his fundamental nature even if everything else were lost.
Sometimes, Fuller’s sheer exuberance for description gets sloppy and sentimental, such as when she writes of Colton’s “cornflower blue eyes, forgiving as Jesus, like he truly couldn’t feel the pain.” It’s already enough that Colton is unbelievably pure-hearted — we don’t need the messianic comparison.
More than anything, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is a story about the crushing realities facing blue-collar westerners, the once-proud pioneers who now find themselves the disposable commodities of industry and corporate greed. Colton is trapped by his circumstances, above which he’ll never rise by luck, higher education, or football scholarship. Colton is an oil rigger’s son destined to follow in his father’s greasy footprints, knowing he has little if any choice in the matter.
From the opening page, Fuller warns us her subject is predestined for an early death: “Like all Westerns, this story is a tragedy before it even starts because there was never a way for anyone to win against all the odds out here.” Fuller doesn’t completely bring the “villains” on stage until the end of the book, when Colton lies dying in the hospital. An oil company safety officer pays the grieving family a visit, heartlessly telling them, “If the boy dies, we can help with the funeral, but we got to get blood and urine outta him and test for drugs. He comes up hot for anything and you ain’t getting nothing.” Fuller wisely resists injecting any authorial moralizing and just lets the scene play out on its own.
The most poignant chapter is saved for the end of the book: the story of Colton’s birth in the front seat of a 1976 Ford Thunderbird going 70 miles per hour on Highway 6 near Payson, Utah. In his mother’s arms, “Colton pulls away and begins to paddle, as if trying to feel the limits of his new world and, finding none, trying to swim away on his own umbilical pull back to the earth.” The image captures perfectly the sense of a boy who could not wait to start living. This is one unforgettable American life, cut short by tragedy, written in large, beautiful strokes of the pen.