I know it’s hard to believe, but there are folks who don’t like horse books. We passed a copy of Alyson Hagy’s Boleto to a Boswellian, who, despite how much he probably would have liked the book, this is a hoop he just couldn’t pass through.
We hear all sorts of reading restrictions when suggesting books. No books where the animal dies. Mysteries that are neither violent nor cozies. And here’s one of my favorites from years ago—no books written in the first person.
I wondered if I were a horse person or not as I read Boleto, the starkly beautiful new novel from Alyson Hagy, placed in my hands, of course, by Stacie, who would be the first to say that a horse in any story is a bonus. But for me, I have read Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, and I was also a champion of Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals years ago. And there’s probably more if I think about it.
But more than that, I think I am drawn to that style of writing that is popular in the West. Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Mark Spragg’s An Unfinished Life come to mind. Spare, straightforward, unindulgent.
At its heart, Boleto is about a young Wyoming man, Will Testerman, working on his family ranch. He quickly realizes that he’s got to make his way in the world on his own, as his older brothers, Chad and Everett, have the ranch well in hand, and Dad’s other business, a printing service, is a brutal thing, slowly bleeding his father dry. There’s no siren song there.
Will is grooming two horses, his own Hawk and an unnamed filly, who he is training to one day sell. He calls her Tic sometimes, after his mother’s name (yes, I know this is the wrong term, but I am not a horse person, it’s dam, right) Sally’s Quick Ticket, but he never quite names her.
The story is divided into three parts. In the first, set in his hometown, he acquires the filly, and we see the family dynamics. His mom’s in cancer treatment. His neighbor Annie Atwood has gone missing.
In part two, he works a summer at a guest ranch. The old foreman has been demoted to chief wrangler. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s a drunk, and prone to bad decisions. And that’s not to say there aren’t some other bad guys on the ranch. Will gets caught in the middle.
And finally, he is called to a Argentine-style polo training facility. He’s been invited down by the wealthy owner, but when he gets there, nobody is aware of the invitation. He’s placed with the young Argentine boys who work the ranch, several marred by unnamed accidents. And the head of the ranch is not happy to have him there.
In each episode, there’s a little growing up to do. But as Stacie noted to me, the story is all about taking chances. And Will’s maturation process leads him to take several chances. Some don’t pay out, some do.
I was trying to decide if this was a novel or more like three connected novellas. And Stacie noted that the story was far too connected to be considered separate stories, and I had to agree. In a sense, I think the best description of the book is a triptych, three paintings on connected panels. The sweep of the story does remind me of artwork. And the solemnity of the tale has almost a religious feel to it.
So now it’s up to you? Are you a horse person? Or maybe you just like the wide open spaces of western writing. Or perhaps you just want a beautiful book. If so, pick up a copy of Boleto. And then you might want to join us at Boswell for Alyson Hagy’s appearance on Tuesday, June 12, 7 pm. Opening for Hagy will be local writer Laurel Landis.