by W.K. Stratton
Harcourt, 320 pp. $25W.K. Stratton's combination of memoir, profiles, and travel narrative with lengthy digressions into rodeo culture and folklore makes the sport seem familiar even if it defies easy categorization. Ultimately, what Stratton seems to be chasing is an authentic American ritual that takes the stuff of hard work and transforms it into a celebration of hard play. As such, he attempts to settle the thorny debate on rodeo's origins. While often described as "the only spectator sport originating entirely in the United States," Stratton contends that like many American products, rodeo is a Mexican creation, one that predates the cowboy era by several centuries. More troubling and just as fascinating is the story of African-American cowboy Bill Pickett, who invented bulldogging, steer wrestling, and went on to become one of the sports first superstars. He also starred in the first films composed of all African-American casts that attempted to avoid the crude stereotypes. Of course, this didn't protect him from the dehumanization of Jim Crow, which consigned him to the livestock car while traveling by rail. As far as its future goes, Stratton fears that the rush to position rodeo as the next NASCAR, complete with the ubiquity of Toby Keith's jingoistic anthems, will strip the sport of its soul. Though he notes that today's logo cowboys can make a decent living through promotion, he clearly prefers Oregon's Pendleton Roundup, where such corporate clutter is verboten.
While there's an undue amount of banal accounts involving Stratton's rental cars and motel experiences, there's enough to make his journey worth the trouble of saddling up and following along. For all his reporting, it's actually Stratton's personal reflections that make the book exceptionally readable. The legacy of "Cowboy Don," his biological father, we learn, is part of the rodeo's appeal, as it's one of the few traces he has to who his dad was. While he doesn't advance this argument, it's hard to ignore the connection between sports and a larger quest for paternal communion. Whether it's baseball or bulldogging, sports are one of a few avenues though which manhood is conveyed. Perhaps this explains why sports films are as schmaltzy as anything Nora Ephron might produce.
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