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Book Review

A sad, true story that's as strong as its subject

By Chuck Leddy
September 6, 2008
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The Legend of Colton H. Bryant
By Alexandra Fuller
Penguin, 224 pp., $23.95

Alexandra Fuller spent her youth in Africa, and her first two books --2001's "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood" and 2004's "Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier" -- reflect that upbringing. Fuller, having moved to Wyoming, now tackles the tragic true story of Colton H. Bryant, a 25-year-old who died after an accident while working on a Wyoming oil rig.

Fuller is nothing if not ambitious. She uses the life story of this handsome young westerner as a vehicle for describing the breathtaking beauty of Wyoming's unforgiving landscape, the laconic, tough-as-nails worldview of men like Bryant's oil-rigger father, Bill, and the get-rich-quick mentality of energy companies like the one Bryant worked (and died) for. Like the people Fuller describes, her prose is direct, strong, and filled with rugged lyricism. Bryant, for example, learns how to be a man from his father, whose silences are filled with meaning: "What [Bill] passed on to his son was a desire to be just like him. What he could never teach Colton was a saddle-bronc rider's trick of slowing down time until you knew the shape of it, until you could possess it."

Bryant's rites of passage are classic western ones: learning to hunt with his older brother, turning a wild horse into a loyal companion, following his father and brother to work on the dangerous oil rigs. Fuller knows this rough world intimately and renders it with a kind of spare prose-poetry. Describing an oil rig, she writes: "It's a place of repetitive, machine-powered tedium, a methodical siege interspersed with quick, sometimes fatal violence. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, in blowing sideways ice and snow or the cremating heat of summer, the drilling goes on and on and on spinning through the earth." Fuller focuses on the gritty, hardscrabble details of Wyoming life, never romanticizing Bryant, his family, or his surroundings.

The people she portrays have been hardened like stone by a tough land and limited economic opportunities, but she finds a deep yearning for beauty in their very silences. Here is Bryant's initial encounter with his future wife: "He took one look at her and was undone by the way she was beautiful and dark-haired and tiny and brokenhearted. So then there was a moment the size of all the sky, Colton staring at her and feeling as if someone had released an entire season's worth of geese below his ribs and Melissa thinking, "Well?'."

After Bryant's first child is born, Melissa demands that he quit the hazardous oil-rig job, but he has no other employment options. Fuller's deep, lyrical exploration of his past makes us want more for him than what the world hands him. This tale is, in the end, akin to an ancient Greek tragedy. One day, Bryant falls off an oil rig and dies; he's 25 years old, and leaves his grieving family with nothing.

"The Legend of Colton H. Bryant" is a highly unusual one, difficult to categorize. It might be seen as investigative journalism, a meditation on the American West, or an ambitious, epic prose poem about one man's tragic death. Whatever its genre, it is beautifully crafted and suffused with an unspoken desire for a better world.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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