By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
When Reding sets out to lasso his subject rather than let it nuzzle up to him, he is unseated by some deadish meat. His repeated “obsession” to document the effects of the 20th century on what he perceives as a dying breed has the brand of the feature writer. (The gaucho, like the Tasmanian aborigine, was pronounced extinct in the last third of the 19th century.) Unconvincing too is his central motif: the road that in 1976 General Pinochet started to lay across this wilderness. Reding has a notion to skewer Pinochet‘s Pan-American Highway through his narrative rather in the manner of Duck’s asador, the metal stake on which he roasts his ewe. But the road is a reddish herring: It‘s empty and leads nowhere very interesting. Reding’s material is anyway so rich, so authentic, so heart-rending that it doesn‘t require a motif. Once he finds his own stride and the courage to cast off his shadows, he loses sight of it, and what comes into view is fresh and tremendous.
The proper core of the book is the drunkard Duck, a violent, tormented, tender man who promises to teach Reding everything -- and does. He regards the author quite properly as an emissary of the world that is castrating him and yet which, at the same time, he wishes desperately to enter. Once or twice he comes near to cutting Reding’s throat. (As Edith explains, “It drove him nuts that you never gave any indication of what you were thinking.”) Duck is fired from his position as a cowhand halfway into Reding‘s second visit, and his painful pilgrimage from the grazing grounds of the Rio Cisnes to the town of Coihaique is the real journey. In town, Duck gives up drink, exchanges his saddle for a pair of foreman’s trousers and goes to work on a building site. Edith gives up smoking and goes to church to exorcise the devil. Kicking and screaming, their children go to school. Reding quotes a line from the gaucho novel Don Segundo Sombra: “A gaucho on foot is fit for nothing but the manure pile.” Brutally, dispassionately, he records the death rattle of the cowhand‘s way of life and the transition from peon a caballo to urban cowboy in the manner of Peeled, a drug dealer flanked by street kids who look north to California, not south to Tierra del Fuego; who rustle Toyota four-wheel-drives, not Herefords; who watch movies, not sunsets, “and take orders from Robert De Niro.”
Just as foreigners cannot write about Californian culture without descending into caricature and hyperbole, so is the world of the gaucho predetermined and romantic to the West. To catalog its contents is already to yield to its lurid swagger. Like Reding, I answered to Flaco or Nico or Nicolas. As he did, I wore bombachas and a wool cummerbund and sat by flames sucking mate through hot silver. And like him, I succumbed -- fatally -- to the superstitions and traditions of illiterate men who work with horses. I can vouch for his knife fights, his dances, his moments of deranging boredom. But I was 17 years old and had not learned, as this writer has, to compress experience into something enduring. He swallowed, he got drunk, but he hung around long enough to convert his 10 months into an elegy that deserves its place on the narrow shelf occupied by W.H. Hudson, R.B. Cunninghame Graham and R. Guiraldes. Someone should have read it to Borges.
Nicholas Shakespeare is the author of the biography Bruce Chatwin and the novel The Dancer at the Top of the Stairs, both available from Anchor Books.