The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
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Born in a Ford Thunderbird streaking down an empty highway in southwestern Wyoming, Colton H. Bryant always liked it when things happened fast. He wanted his teacher to talk twice as fast so he could get out of school twice as early. He guzzled Mountain Dew and rode the open highways with delight. He found himself drawn to the rodeo corrals where a man’s worth was measured in eight seconds flat. He even imagined that he could catch a pronghorn antelope with his bare hands. Yet, amid all the exuberant pleasure that he found in speed, Colton H. Bryant also sensed that he was racing through life. He seemed to know that that race might be over in a very short time. When, at the age of twenty-five, a fall at his job on an oil rig brought Colton’s ecstatic running abruptly to an end, there was little reason for those who knew him to be surprised. Still, the feeling that this young man’s end was somehow fated did nothing to ease the loss of a father, son, and friend taken away too soon.
By prevailing standards, Colton H. Bryant seems hardly the stuff of legend. His education slowed and hampered by ADHD, his ambitions and prospects stunted by the isolation of his surroundings, Colton was a person whom many of us might promptly dismiss as another face in the crowd. However, in her third book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, Alexandra Fuller begs to disagree. In this true story with “narrative liberties,” Fuller takes a detailed, affectionate look at the life of a young man who, although his dreams and abilities never take him far from home, traveled deep into the affections of those who knew him. She presents a portrait of a person who always knew how to “cowboy up” when adversity came, someone who received more than his share of blows, both physical and emotional, but bore them with astonishing patience and forgiveness. A recurrent phrase runs through The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, a line that Colton espoused as his abiding mantra: “Mind over matter. I don’t mind so it don’t matter.” Holding fast to his homespun stoicism, Colton lived life with seemingly invincible good cheer. Nevertheless, Colton’s happy-go-lucky resiliency could not quite free him from his quietly endured pain, and his face exudes some “deep hurt lodged early somewhere far behind the eyes.” It is the balance that Fuller achieves between happiness and hurt that makes her tale so poignant, so memorable, and so real.
With refined perception and deeply affecting prose, Fuller powerfully evokes both a unique human spirit and a vast, overpowering landscape that both inspires the people who call it home and drives them toward folly and destruction. She examines a simple life and discovers within it the complexities of a modern tragic hero. Simultaneously, beneath her ecstatic prose and deeply human insights, there lies a punishing indictment of the economic forces that conspired to shorten Colton’s life. Fuller decries the deadly cocktail of fear, indifference, and greed that drives our economy at so reckless a pace—too fast even for the speed-loving Colton H. Bryant.
Alexandra Fuller was born in England in 1969 and was raised in Rhodesia. After living in Malawi and Zambia, Fuller received her bachelor’s degree from Acadia University in Nova Scotia. Fuller recalled her formative years in her highly popular memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. This debut won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was honored as a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. Her second book, Scribbling the Cat, received the Lettre Ulysses Award for literary reportage. Alexandra Fuller lives with her family in Wyoming.
Q. We doubt that there are very many people whose lives have passed through England, Rhodesia, Malawi, Zambia, and Nova Scotia on their way to Wyoming. How has this unique personal odyssey shaped you as a writer?
It’s probably cliché to say this, but in my experience, people are far more alike than they are dissimilar. There are forces in every culture that are trying to protect an often unsustainable status quo and mavericks or risk-takers who try to embrace a broader definition of what it is to be human on the planet. The fracture that is created while the new fights to shake off the old become stories of people whose cultures no longer seem relevant. For example, read Dambadzo Marachera’s controversial The House of Hunger set in freshly-independent Zimbabwe and its drunken violence is comparable to the disturbing heroin-soaked Scottish novel Trainspotting by Irvin Welsh. Or look at The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing’s 1950 book set in Rhodesia and compare it to Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel written in 1964 set in Canada. Laurence writes of the stultifying cost to women of living in small, wind-maddening prairie town in North America and Lessing writes similarly of a woman on the edge of nowhere trying to hold onto herself against the loneliness and against the often unimaginative response of her husband in southern Rhodesia. I think the point is, give us similar circumstances and regardless of whether we’re in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Canada or Scotland, we all suffer the same and we all long for a kind of autonomy and self-regard, equality and fairness, the right to use our brains and hands the best we can. We are also all capable of shocking unkindness and thoughtlessness.
I heard Cindy Sheehan (the American mother who became an anti-war activist after her son Casey was killed in Iraq in 2004) speak once in a BBC interview of being a “matriot” instead of a “patriot.” A matriot, she explained, valued the lives of all people, across the world. A matriot does not value the lives of children of one nationality over another. Perhaps more than anything, my life’s journey from Africa to the U.K. and from there to North America has persuaded me the moral truth of this philosophy. I don’t think you can assume some lives are worth more than others or that some people deserve more of the world’s resources than others. It seems very clear to me that we, in the West, cannot afford to continue assuming propriety over the world’s resources in a careless, greedy way without paying for it, not only with the lives of our loved ones, but also with our souls.
There’s a fabulously catchy country song out now (I started to listen to a lot of country when I was writing The Legend of Colton H. Bryant). It’s called “Little Bitty” by Alan Jackson and is really an anthem to peace and sharing, “A little bitty house and a little bitty yard / Little bitty dog and a little bitty car. . . .” Colton was pretty familiar with “little bitty.” He drove his sister’s little bitty car for long enough (although he longed for a Ford F350, it’s true), spent the first few years of his life in a little bitty single-wide trailer home, never really had more than a man needed to get his life done. It was a life lived with values we hardly recognize anymore, closer to the earth than many Americans can even imagine. He is not so far from people I know in Africa in that regard, nor from my Scottish ancestors who lived among the crofters on the Isle of Skye off the west coast of Scotland.
Q. The Legend of Colton H. Bryant speaks eloquently of the effect of climate and landscape on a person’s thoughts and character. How do you think life in Wyoming has influenced your own thinking and personality?
I think the West used to be simpler. People came out here and got beaten into shape by the climate they found. Now the West has become the biggest energy supplier for the rest of the United States and the old ranching way of life that had always rubbed shoulders more or less comfortably with mineral extraction is disappearing. There isn’t the time anymore to let a cow grow to its full size on prairie grass, we put them in feed lots so they can get fat quicker and cheaper and we can follow suit.
I was lucky to get to Wyoming before this latest oil boom. I had a chance to see a glimpse of how those cultures worked before the money piled on and the fights over how much we could make broke out. It was—and still is in places, but it’s harder to find—a strange combination of people who really mind their own business and have incredibly decent values. (Some old cowboys I met remind me of monks, which is how I found that image for Bill Bryant. Their peace is hard-won, but they’re ascetic and profoundly Zen in their philosophy.)
I don’t know if it’s just my age, or the climate, or the high altitude, or some of those old-cowboy values rubbing off on me, but I’ve grown slightly mellower living in Wyoming. I think if you ride into the West on a high horse, you pretty soon end up in a pile of manure. I like how humbling all that space and all those hours in a saddle can be. Also, one long stare from someone like Bill Bryant tends to put a person in their place. He doesn’t mean anything by it, but he has a kind of moral authority that is incredibly hard won, and it really is life changing to be around someone who has such a clear sense of self.
Q. You seem to have captured the speech and idioms of your Wyoming characters with native fluency. Was it difficult for you to absorb these mannerisms, verbal and otherwise, that must seem so foreign to those of your own earlier life?
Like I said, I listened to hours and hours of country music on those long drives from Jackson to Pinedale and all around Sublette County and down to Evanston. I learned a lot about the culture and the nuances of the culture from the music. You’ve got everything from Alan Jackson’s “Little Bitty,” which seems to me to be a song about peace and the environment to his funny, irreverent “It’s Five o’clock Somewhere” (sung with Jimmy Buffet), which is about drinking your way out of a mindless job to Montgomery Gentry’s in-your-face lyrics in “What Do You Think About That” to an anthem about women fighting back, Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead” (“I’m going home / Gonna load my shotgun. . . . I’m gonna show him what little girls are made of / Gunpowder and lead”), to some of those sentimental songs that got me all teary-eyed, like Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff” and pretty much anything by John Denver.
One night, I left Jake and Tonya’s late, after talking about Colton. It was late May and a spring snowstorm had hit the mountains. As I was leaving, Jake gave me a carton of fresh eggs from their chickens and told me to “keep ’er on the road.” He seemed worried about me driving in the snow (spring storms tend to make the roads slick and the snow is slushy and hard to see against). Suddenly, he turned and ran back into the house and came back out with a handful of CDs. “These were Colton’s,” he said. “We found them in his house after he died.” I drove home through the snowstorm that night listening to Colton’s music: Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and a whole bunch of people I’d never heard of. I cried the whole way home through a pretty terrific snowstorm (I don’t think I went over thirty the whole way). I also started to “hear” Colton in my head a little. Maybe it was the way Jake had been imitating Colton all night and the way he got all goofy to try and demonstrate the way he walked, or maybe it was the music and the long, lonely drive home, but Colton’s “voice” really settled on me at that point and after that, I don’t think I ever lost his sound (I can hear it, and I can write it, but I couldn’t speak it if my life depended on it).
More than that, I have lived in Wyoming fourteen years. I have spent enough time on cattle drives and with ranch hands that I have started to get a grip on the way people slide their language over their tongues and their sly wit and the way they understate everything (the bigger the mess, the less they say about it). What I didn’t get until I met Bill Bryant was the way Wyoming people speak in silences. Sometimes you ask them a question and they’ll just kind of squint at you or spit (or both) and it took me a long time to realize that they were letting the wind and the spit do the talking. Understanding that piece of the dialogue was very important but it was hard to write—how do you express an absence of dialogue in which the unsaid is everything?
Q. Your writings have explored both farm life in Africa and life on the oil patch in rural Wyoming. Are there any comparisons to be made between the two existences?
Oh, sure. Both places are inhabited by some of the toughest people I know—resilient, resourceful, uncompromising. I think you survive very well either place with that kind of toughness.
Q. To the casual observer, you and Colton would seem to have very little in common. How did a writer like you happen to be drawn to a person like him?
I disagree. Sure, I’m a girl with a funny accent and Colton was a boy who spoke Rocky Mountain English, but I knew boys just like Colton when I was growing up and if I had been a boy, I’d have been more like Colton than not. As it was, I spent the first decade of my life regretting not being a boy (from what I could tell, men seemed to have all the power, if not all the fun) so I was an inveterate student of what it would take to be a boy. And, aside from that, I grew up around guns and horses, pickups and taciturn men. And I grew up with women who had lost children. Imagining Colton in that way wasn’t a huge leap for me. I felt like I knew him, even though, of course, I never did meet him.
Q. Although your story is essentially nonfiction, you write this book very much in the form of a bildungsroman, that is, a novel about the main character’s coming of age. The heroes of such novels often tend to be sensitive, artistic types, reflecting the mental habits and preoccupations of their creators. Colton H. Bryant, however, was hardly a person of great cultural refinement. Were you intentionally breaking the mold by choosing someone like him as a coming-of-age hero?
No, I wasn’t breaking any mold or making any mold. I was just writing the story I had in front of me. Colton seemed like someone who represented a romantic and tragic hero of the post 9/11 western United States and in that way, he was every bit as iconic as an Old West figure. Cowboys have been dying off since they were invented and, at heart, every cowboy story is about the death if not of themselves, then of their way of life. Colton is a new kind of cowboy. (Although just the use of that word can get all kinds of people upset. Some people argue you can’t be a cowboy without cows. I say, sure you can. Colton had everything but the cows).
Q. Another genre that your book enables us to rethink is tragedy. A lot of us, I suppose, grew up with the old Aristotelian idea of the person of high rank brought to grief by a tragic flaw. Your vision of tragedy in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant has less to do with inner failings and much more to do with environment. You say early on that every Western is a tragedy “because there was never a way for anyone to win against all the odds out here.” Would you like to elaborate further on your ideas of tragedy?
There is something inevitable about tragedy out here. I think because there has always been a rush for the resources and that kind of greed ensures that tragedy is close behind. I was stunned by There Will Be Blood (the movie by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the Upton Sinclair novel Oil!). Almost nothing has changed since the early oil days (or the story of that time) except the magnitude of the violence. Now we have violence on a less hand-to-hand level, but it’s not so far removed at all from early gold- and oil-rush days.
Q. Great tragedy often proceeds from a sense of inevitability, and your book continually hints that its story will not end well. Yet you also suggest that Colton’s death was preventable. Do you feel any tension between your book’s overall sense of inevitable catastrophe and its social message that Colton’s particular demise could have been avoided?
No, I don’t think there is any tension in the story. That would have to mean someone in power was actually trying to stop what was inevitable but everyone from the oil companies to the federal government to the Bureau of Land Management (who issues the leases) were pushing to get the minerals out of the ground as fast as they could. I don’t know what will give them pause. Colton was the third roughneck killed on an Ultra rig in one area in six months and they just fenced off the place where he fell, moved the rig, and went right back to work. I think the real tension is between Colton and the reader. What is the reader going to do different, knowing what the true cost of energy is? For me, the tension starts when the book ends.
Q. Colton’s fundamental decency and his inability to grasp the forces that will eventually destroy him reminded us a bit of Steinbeck, another author of the West whose good-hearted characters unwittingly collide with indifferent, exploitative economic forces. What writers were on your mind as you worked on The Legend of Colton H. Bryant?
Yes, John Steinbeck and James Galvin (The Meadow), of course, but mostly I was writing so close to the bone, I was terrified to read too much writing about the West. I ended up rereading Paul Theroux’s incredibly disciplined short stories and tried to remind myself to tell a good story. I had become so emotionally attached to Colton and I have a deep respect and admiration for his parents, his sisters, and Jake and that I had to be careful to write for the reader, not for them.
Q. The Legend of Colton H. Bryant has some rather harsh words for the oil and gas industry. However, we might suppose that industry executives would say that they are just doing what companies do: trying to supply a necessary product at a competitive price while giving their shareholders a strong rate of return. Any comments?
I wrote this book in part to demonstrate that there is no heart and soul—embodied by Colton—when the only imperative is financial profit. I have heard over and over again that the drilling business is a dangerous business and death is an expected part of the game, but I’ve also heard of the way that safety violations, human and environmental laws, and a concern for the local culture are flaunted in pursuit of money. It’s no secret that there are safer, more thoughtful ways to live and to generate power. Throwing heartbeats at a drill bit in this particularly mindless way isn’t one of them.
Q. We may tend to think of legends as involving mythic, larger than life figures like King Arthur or El Cid. What led you to characterize the life of Colton H. Bryant as a legend?
After I came up with the title, I phoned Jake to ask what he thought of it. Jake was quiet for a moment and then he said in that lovely Rocky Mountain drawl of his, “It makes me kinda warm and fuzzy all over.” And we agreed that Colton was a legend in the way that only Wyoming can make them. He was the kind of boy that made people want to tell stories around the campfire. “Remember the time Colton stopped the train. . . .” “Remember the time Colton lost Cocoa. . . .” He was also a man of legendary forgiveness and love. Those are not simple or easy qualities to embody in the oil and gas world of Wyoming.
Q. The Legend of Colton H. Bryant has a great deal to say about how masculinity is constructed in America and, in particular, in the red-meat precincts of the Rockies. What are some of the things that either attract or repel you about the myths and realities of American maleness?
There was something unique and slightly old-fashioned about the way Colton was raised to respect women, take care of his family, never curse unless you absolutely have to. It’s hard not be smitten by those kinds of old world manners. On the other hand, that same gentility in the West can often go hand in hand with a kind of unimaginative sense of entitlement—Manifest Destiny it’s called. I think that supreme sense of entitlement which attaches to the idea of American maleness is appallingly limiting, as evidenced by the Kmart cowboys that tease Colton relentlessly for being slightly different.
Q. You write that, in the 1990s, the West was “still full of a kind of gun-shot, hard-won innocence and broken promises and open roads.” That wasn’t so very long ago, yet your elegiac tone makes it sound as if that moment were long gone. What do you think is different now, and how could the old ways have evaporated so fast?
During Clinton’s second term, the Republicans in Congress began to push for more and more oil and gas development in the West. In the eight years since 2000, the Bush administration consolidated its grip on any and all minerals it could get its hands on domestically and nearly 30 million acres of public lands were leased to the oil and gas companies in the West. It was shocking to see the transformation of towns and landscapes surrounding these new gas fields. In their hurry to get minerals out of the ground, the culture—that “gun-shot, hard-won innocence”—was lost and so was an understanding of a common kind of Western decency. I think most Westerners went into the turn of this century believing that they were doing the right thing by allowing expansive oil and gas development—they felt it was their patriotic duty. But then it became increasingly clear that the drilling had less to do with domestic security than massive, record-breaking profits for the oil companies. The loss of life and culture that went with what some have called “Dick Cheney’s land grab” has not been met with a pragmatic, frugal response from the federal government. The West has been sold out, and the only thing anyone has to show for it is a warmer planet and richer mineral companies. The war has dragged on. The West’s wild lands are incredibly, maybe irreparably, compromised. It’s no longer possible (nor should it be) to get in a pickup truck and drive all night for no good reason without worrying about the cost of gas, the cost to the environment, and the cost to the culture.
Q. You chose not to tell the story of Colton’s birth until the next-to-last chapter of the book. What prompted this departure from your generally chronological approach to your narrative?
Chronologically it might have made sense to put Colton’s birth first—and in several early drafts, I tried that—but emotionally, it didn’t feel right to me. I hoped that by putting Colton’s birth at the end—that magical moment when he came racing into the world with his parents watching—the reader would have become attached enough to Bill and Kaylee to connect to that moment when every parent meets their child for the first time and attached enough to Colton that they would have understood that this is the only way Colton could have been born. There was an awful, tragic symmetry to his life—as Kaylee once said to me when I was interviewing her for this book, “He came into this world in a hurry and he left in a hurry.” I wanted the reader to leave the book with an image of the new, innocent Colton coming into the world, all in a hurry to get ’er done and then read, in the author’s note, how carelessly his short life was wasted.
The average length of a chapter in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is between three and four pages. How does the relative brevity of Fuller’s chapters influence the rhythm and feel of her story, and how is it suited to her subject matter?
Compare Fuller’s description of Colton as a boy in the chapter “Colton and the Kmart Cowboys” with her later delineation of him in “Running Free.” What continuities—and what differences—mark the boy and the young man?
How successful is Colton’s mantra, “I don’t mind so it don’t matter” as a philosophy for dealing with the pain of life? How well does it work for him? How well do you think it would work for you?
In The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, characters continually place themselves in situations of extreme risk. Often they seek out these risks voluntarily, as if to supply some quality that is otherwise missing from their lives. How does the book as a whole address the relationship between risk and personal fulfillment?
One of Colton’s few ambitions is to be just like his father, Bill. How does this desire influence Colton, both as a motivation and as a limitation?
Although Colton wants to be like his father, he and Melissa want their own children to be very different from either their father or grandfather. Melissa thinks that three generations of Bryants on the oil patch is enough, and Colton dreads the prospect that his son will have to endure the same struggles that he faced as a boy. Why is Bill Bryant’s way of living good enough for Colton, but not good enough for the next generation?
How does The Legend of Colton H. Bryant interact with the images you may have associated with western living? In what ways does it resist a stereotypical view of life in the West? Are there ways in which it confirms popular assumptions about western living?
One of Alexandra Fuller’s signal achievements in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is her ability to move fluidly from one level of diction to another. She seems equally at home with colloquial phrases like “hooty-tooty-almighty folk” and higher sounding ones like “lost, disembodied orbs.” Select and discuss some of the moments at which Fuller’s use of language becomes the true hero of her story.
It is easy to think of the West as a principally masculine space. Nevertheless, the women in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant also have their role to play. How do the women in the Bryant family make their influences felt, and how do the men in the story respond to feminine influences?
Colton often calls Jake, who has undergone repeated episodes of sexual abuse, “Pussy.” Jake routinely counters by calling Colton, who has struggled terribly with ADHD, “Retard.” Paradoxically, they use these words as terms of endearment. How is it that the two friends can reinforce their bond by exchanging epithets that recall their most painful experiences?
Alexandra Fuller observes admirable, even noble qualities in Colton. Nevertheless, the “Kmart cowboys” in her story—no great models of success themselves—look down on Colton as a simpleminded loser. Does Fuller completely succeed in making Colton sympathetic, or does there remain a part of him that is simply pathetic?
Readers arriving at the end of The Legend of Colton H. Bryant may be surprised to learn that it is essentially a work of nonfiction. What techniques does Fuller use to make the book feel more like a novel than a collection of factual reminiscences?
Recommended Song List
Many of these songs make an appearance in The Legend of Colton H. Bryant. Others were songs that Alexandra Fuller listened to while researching and writing the book and while driving to and from the oil fields.
Black Eyed Peas, “Where Is the Love”
Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer”
Neil Diamond, “Forever in Blue Jeans”p>
Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier”
Sara Evans, “No Place That Far”
Five for Fighting, “Superman”
Montgomery Gentry, “What Do Ya Think About That”
George Harrison, “Here Comes the Sun”
Sarah Johns, “He Hates Me”
Miranda Lambert, “Gunpowder and Lead”
John Lennon, “Give Peace a Chance”
Willie Nelson, “Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Fishin in the Dark”
Pirates of the Mississippi, “Feed Jake”
Daniel Powter, “Bad Day”
Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA”
Gary Wright, “Dreamweaver”
Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”