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No Home on the Range : VIRGIN OF THE RODEO, By Sarah Bird (Doubleday: $21; 342 pp.)

January 02, 1994|Pam Houston | Pam Houston is the author of a short story collection, "Cowboys Are My Weakness" (Norton)

In Sarah Bird's third novel, "Virgin of the Rodeo," 29-year-old Sonja Getz leaves her home and the oppressive adorability of her German mother to search the Texas rodeo scene for her father, an Apache trick roper by the name of Gray Wolf, who didn't stick around long enough to see the day Sonja was born.

Sonja quickly finds an accomplice, another trick roper named Prairie James. He's a down-and-out alcoholic has-been with a heart of gold. Once at the top of the trick roping circuit, Prairie now finds himself the practitioner of an art form that is no longer appreciated, and he moves from town to town, picking up whatever scraps the evil rodeo boss, Casey Dakota, will throw his way, filling in for cancelled acts at the rodeo equivalent of Off-Off-Broadway, little known events put on by cowboys and cowgirls several times removed from rodeo's mainstream.

What is wonderful about "Virgin of the Rodeo" are these unconventional rodeos: the all-black rodeo in Jordan, Tx.; the National Woman's Finals Rodeo; the Gallup Intertribal Rodeo and Fair. In the scenes that take place at these rodeos, Bird allows us to see a side of Texan counterculture few of us knew existed, and these bronc riders and steer ropers put on a much better party than their white male counterparts.

Among the characters we meet at those rodeos are: Tuffy Branch, the red-headed, hot-tempered female bull rider with her dirty house full of illegitimate children; Jackson, the soft-spoken alligator wrestler from Florida; and even Tracy Daines, the All-World champion cowgirl with the prissy straight-brimmed hat, who doesn't want the cowboys to think she's stronger than they are. All Bird's secondary characters are sharply drawn, authentic and well rendered.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Sonja Getz and Prairie James. At least not for the first several chapters of the novel.

Sonja (who changes her name to Son in the first chapter, a name she says is more "Horzo"--robust and elemental) is a large young woman and unpopular, a social outcast who has lived with her mother way too long and who uses a graduate-school, English-department vocabulary to defend herself against America's "idiotic standards of beauty imposed upon us by a cosmetics industry bent on transforming women into powdered puppets." Her rantings are funny at first, but eventually tiresome; and Bird doesn't take enough of an emotional risk with her.

Prairie James is even less sympathetic than Sonja, and, at the novel's opening, even more of a cliche. And by the time I have listened to him fantasize about prostitutes on three continents, by the time I have watched him fart, belch, spit up, pass out and masturbate, the inevitable question arises: Why am I being forced to read about this man?

Then, about halfway through, Bird's approach to her two main characters changes. During a scene in which Tuffy Branch's daughter Boots gets injured--the novel springs back to life every time Tuffy comes onto the page--Bird manages to humanize Sonja and Prairie quickly and effectively. In the space of a few pages they transform from caricature to character, and from that point on the book rolls forward with humor and suspense and a kind of "Monkey Wrench Gang" rompishness that makes it eventually (in spite of what I would characterize as a too sweetly uncomplicated ending) an entertaining read.

But the ending is only a symptom of the problem at the center of the book which is that Sonja has a real-life dilemma: she's obsessed with her father, a man she has never laid eyes on, and she uses her obsession as an excuse for everything that's wrong with her life. By treating this subject as lightly as she does, Bird misses an opportunity to investigate some rich and complicated territoy. She's chosen to write a kind of bastard daughter's madcap adventure, which would have been more satisfying if we'd gotten a little further into the daughter's--and perhaps even the father's--head.

If the subject were saving the planet from the industrial machine, or keeping the free world safe from a tyrannical dictator, or fighting the elements in hopes of securing the world's biggest emerald, then I would be happy with the novel's tone and its resolution. I wouldn't miss, so much, the dark and complicated emotional honeycomb that I believe goes with the territory of daughters abandoned by their fathers, I wouldn't need to feel the impossiblity of resolution that occurs when father and daughter, for the first time, come face to face.

Still, it is strange and refreshing to simply laugh at a subject that so often confounds and depresses me. I have a feeling that if Sarah Bird were here she'd say I was being way too serious. And perhaps she would be right.

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