Book Notes: Alexandra Fuller, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant

My students know that I really like the work of Alexandra Fuller about her childhood and later experiences in southern Africa. I appreciate her aggressively unsentimental vision. She doesn’t tell the usual story of rising to self-awareness, rejecting her society, and becoming a moral crusader. But neither is her work a defense of Rhodesia or her own family: she crafts a curious blend of soft misanthropy with an eye for the telling detail that allows you to feel for and with the people she describes. And I do mean craft: she’s an exceptionally talented writer.

Her book about a young man’s life and death in Wyoming shows that her craft as a writer carries over into a new setting. A lot of the discussion about the book to date has centered on the novelistic feel of the book: it’s another of those works that raises some questions about what the constraints on a work of non-fiction are or ought to be. It’s hard to believe that Colton Bryant’s life was described to her by those who knew him with some of the details and stylistic notes that Fuller puts in to the book, and her author’s note at the end says as much, speaking of “liberties” she has taken, and aspects of his life emphasized or disregarded.

I’m occasionally unsettled by some of the boundaries blurred, but I’ve seen Fuller do the same in all her work, and I’m ok with the end product as long as it’s understood that what she (and some other boundary-blurring authors) are doing is basically myth-making in the best sense of the concept. Or in the case of her work on Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, making counter-myths.

Maybe the problem isn’t with work that blurs boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, but with the authority that we’re inclined to grant work that is labelled non-fiction or research or statistics or findings. This morning in the New York Times there is a story about a study that suggests that blue rooms encourage creativity and red rooms encourage accuracy. It takes getting to the bottom of the story before the details of the effect sizes emerge (small) and questions about the assumptions built into the study are raised (considerable). And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if in six months time, there are interior decorators doing their most to sell people on repainting homes and schools and work spaces clutching this study in hand, claiming that experts and scientists say it’s vitally important that this work be done.

What would a book that was more rigorously non-fictional about Colton Bryant and his death in a Wyoming oil rig look like? It could have more of Alexandra Fuller in it, and explain more of what she knows and how she knows it. That can work if it’s done the right way, but much of the time, that approach turns into self-indulgence, where other people’s lives are primarily seen as interesting for what they catalyze in the life of the writer. It could have more of the economic and social facts surrounding working-class life in Wyoming, or more of a portrait of the oil industry in Wyoming, but in that kind of account, the vividly personal diminishes, becomes typified and sanitized, something to use in political campaigns or policy debates.

My main response to Fuller’s work in this book is not about whether she should engage in myth-making, but about what side of the mythic street she is working. Starting with a story like Bryant’s that ends with him dying as a young man working in a dangerous industry that cares little for the fate of its employees, an outsider like Fuller can go a couple of ways. She can look at Bryant’s world as pathological, as a series of traps, as a landscape in need of emancipation or transformation. Or she can sympathize, even sanctify, his world and his dogged determination to make his manhood through a kind of labor that he and everyone else in his world understands is likely to claim its due in blood.

Fuller very much works with the latter approach and a lot of the tropes of that view seep in along the way. This is a good book to read if you want a sense of how a basically Jacksonian sense of popular authenticity arising out of working manhood, as residing in the common sense of the everyday as opposed to the educated consciousness of elites, is so continuously renewed in American life but never more so than in the last decade. All of Fuller’s work sees people who risk and commit and don’t pause overly much to reflect as the authentic wellspring of life, as truly being in the land and the world, as defining what places and communities really are. Even though Fuller clearly views the oil company itself as exploitative and insensitive, the way she imagines Colton H. Bryant’s life is to imagine it as the life he (and perhaps us) should have lived, as opposed to a condition from which she imaginatively wishes to rescue him.

I think that’s a powerful myth, and I don’t care for the pathologization that is its frequent opposite. But I wonder if you can have your cake and eat it too to the extent that Fuller would like to: describe lives not only without apology but as sufficient, as what they are and ought to be, to seal them off from yearning and reflection and second thoughts, not to mention any sense of living in a world where there are other lives, other situations, rubbing up against them uncomfortably. Fuller does to Bryant what she did to her childhood, in a way: enclose him in a manorial world of his friends and family, a culture without boundaries or limits, where even the kids who mocked him as a “retard” are part and parcel of the architecture of that cultural world.

This entry was posted in Africa, Books, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Book Notes: Alexandra Fuller, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant

  1. Sisyphus says:

    Have you seen _The Wrestler_? I have a half-drafted post in response to that movie. Some of my friends are really going after that one for its mythologizing of working-class masculinity. I saw it as sympathetic, but still critical.

Comments are closed.