Thursday, June 1, 2006

Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston

Pam Houston's "Cowboys Are My Weakness" is a collection of short stories that was first published in 1991. Filled with stories about wild women and even wilder men, the stories still ring true today.

Houston hit the scene shortly after her short story "How to Talk to a Hunter" was selected for the highly acclaimed "Best American Short Stories" series in 1990. That story was the launching pad for this book-- or at least it was the reason that I bought this book in the first place. I just had to read more of this author's work-- and what better way than to delve into her short story collection? Turns out it was a good choice because this book is one that I read repeatedly.

The book contains 12 stories, mostly set in the West. Cowboys are everywhere though, not just out west-- and some of the stories are set in Alaska as well. Most of the stories center around the theme of love-- real or unrequited. And although all of the men in these stories are not all cowboys per se, the cowboy motif describes the image of Houston's bad boy, the untamed man. The women in the book are not dumb-- they are educated, sensible women but they tend to fall for the wrong men. Sometimes over and over again.

At the time that she wrote this book, Houston was a part time river guide and hunting guide, so it's no wonder that her stories are written about adventurous types. Outdoorsy type imagery is prominent throughout the book, whether it's a tale of white water rafting ("Selway") or just a casual mention of a desert within a story. Some of the stories are very short-- just a few pages long ("Symphony", "A Blizzard Under Blue Sky") but the words pack such a punch that even the shortest stories are riveting.

If you're not the outdoorsy type (or not a hunter or a river rafter) then you may long for some urban imagery with your fiction, but Houston keeps you interested in things you would normally never even think about: Dall sheep hunting, for instance. And eating moose steaks for dinner.

In "How to Talk to a Hunter", undeniably the most famous of these stories, we hear from a nameless narrator, in love with a man so deeply that she overlooks his "flaws"-- the fact that he listens to top 40 country music and that he doesn't play back his answering machine messages when she is in the room. He's a pseudo-hunter: he sleeps under moose skins, yet expresses remorse for a deer that he killed-- a deer that he all the while he displays on his wall.

While you feel for the narrator of this story, you may find yourself also looking down on her-- until you realize that she may be just like you. The "hunter" in this story is clearly seeing another woman, a woman whose voice the narrator hears on the answering machine one morning. Still silent, she does nothing and says nothing to her hunter. Why? Because he takes care of her. Because he makes her feel safe. Her two best friends-- a man and a woman-- offer tidbits of advice throughout the story. Advice that makes sense, depending on your gender. And while the narrator in this story could come off as a desperate woman, she doesn't because you understand her. Set with a backdrop of the Christmas season, this story is one of my favorite short stories of all time.

Houston has a wonderful way with words and her descriptions of the mountain tops and other outdoor images are written in a beautifully lyrical way. Her talk about animals-- from white tailed deer to two beloved dogs named Jackson and Hailey (who seem to make it into a couple of the stories) is delightful. The dialogue in her stories is realistic and keeps the flow of the stories going nicely.

If you enjoy the short story genre, I highly recommend the book "Cowboys Are My Weakness". While all of the stories in this collection are well written, be sure not to miss the title story, as well as "How to Talk to a Hunter", "Selway", "Highwater" and "Sometimes You talk About Idaho". These stories will undoubtedly make you want to read more.

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