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Fiction Westerns

The Last Cowboy

by (author) Lee Gowan

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Jan 2005
Westerns, Literary, NON-CLASSIFIABLE
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2005
    List Price

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In this romantic, humorous and harrowing novel, the acclaimed author of Make Believe Love returns to the epic skies and straight roads of Broken Head, Saskatchewan, and takes us into a very modern Western.

Sam McMahon can’t understand why his banker colleagues in Toronto keep calling him “cowboy,” when he prefers opera to C&W and fine wine to beer. Sam’s wife is in love with his brother Vern, who has followed the family tradition and works their parents’ farm, a mixed cattle and crop operation inherited from his grandfather, Old Sam. When his wife leaves him stranded by the side of a Saskatchewan highway, Sam is rescued by a woman, Ai Lee, in a rented Toyota. Ai is a film location scout who’s searching for the perfect cliff for legendary director James Aspen’s new film, The Last Cowboy.

Thirty years previously, Old Sam dreams of better days in an older West, mending fences, riding horses, raising cattle. To save young Sam, then 10 years old, from what he considers the malaise of the late-20th century, Old Sam drags him off into a blizzard on horseback. His goal is to save a lost cow and her new calf, which may or may not exist. Sam’s parents fear he’ll only manage to kill his grandson. When, only days later, the old cowboy wanders out of doors without his parka in the freezing cold, muttering about a lost boy, he’s rescued by a Native couple out in a “borrowed” car, who run afoul of the police and end up driving into their final sunset. When Ai hears their story from Sam, she thinks she’s found her perfect location.

The Last Cowboy does much more than update the Western; it weaves together stories and generations and unveils, with beauty and compassion, the leap or fall that awaits us all.

So I stretch back in permanent recline and do my best to travel off to a better day, a summer day back fifty years past, a few days after a big rain, so that everything was green except for the cuts in the draws where the runoff had chewed right through the grass. There was a glow to the world back then that has long since been lost. It is painfully elusive, that particular luminescence, but I sit here stubbornly trying to restore the shine of it. I begin with a sky that was as blue as the better skies now, and work my way down to the green, only a breath of a line of white dividing the earth from the heavens. -- from The Last Cowboy

About the author

Contributor Notes

Lee Gowan grew up on a farm near Swift Current, Saskatchewan. He is the author of Going to Cuba, a collection of short stories, and of Make Believe Love, a New Face of Fiction novel that was nominated for the Trillium Award. His first screenplay, Paris or Somewhere, won three screenwriting awards and was nominated for a Gemini. He currently directs the creative writing program at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto.

Excerpt: The Last Cowboy (by (author) Lee Gowan)


Sam McMahon froze, the steaming kettle in his hand poised over his stainless steel designer teapot. He didn’t pour. He was listening for something. Probably only the wind. Yes, the moaning of the wind sweeping across the valley and thrumming his corrugated metal roof. But there was no wind. The air was still and dry, the sun bleaching the whole world with angry light. Even the sparrows were too hot to sing. In the silence of the room he could hear his ears humming, his heart beating, a fly buzzing between the Venetian blinds and one of the sheets of glass that ran the length of the house on the southern exposure. And then there it was, the faint whispering of a faraway voice.

“Hello?” he said, standing up straighter, focussing on that one sound.

He’d noticed it as he lifted the kettle from the stove, interrupting the shrill whistle. On the stereo the last strains of Mozart’s Don Giovanni were fading away. For a moment, in the revealed silence, he heard the voice murmuring fitfully, mournfully, and he couldn’t stop himself from answering: “Hello?” Now he concentrated, and the faint whispering was still there, but he knew by the way it droned on that it was not a reply. He strained to decipher its source and meaning, until it was interrupted by the beat of some insipid pop song.

He was talking to a voice on the radio. Michael had left the radio on in his room.

He was alone. He might be alone for the rest of his life. All of the rooms of his beautiful home were empty. Except this one, the kitchen, where he still stood holding the kettle in mid-air -- had held it for so long that the water had stopped boiling and the tea would be spoiled if he poured. He set the kettle back on the burner and turned on the gas.

Yesterday was Saturday, and he’d spent it at the bank, catching up on the paperwork that had piled up all week. He loved the bank when it was empty -- only the tubular chrome chairs with the gaudy green-striped upholstery in the waiting area, the reams of paper neatly in their files, the stacks of money in the sealed vault, and him. He’d planned to spend Sunday with the boys, but when he’d arrived home last night Gwen had ambushed him, pronouncing him the worst father in the history of the family. It seemed like something of an overstatement, and so he had fought back and ended up sleeping in the guest room. It had got so that the boys called the guest room “Daddy’s room.” He’d rolled around for most of the night, imagining accusations and apologies, and in the end slept for only two hours, awaking to see the light funnelling through the narrow window knocked in the concrete, Gwen’s framed needlepoint surrounding him. The master bedroom had a whole wall of glass looking out over the valley.

When he walked into the kitchen and sat down for breakfast, Gwen announced that she was taking the boys to see their grandparents. Her parents. There was no question of Sam coming. Her father had not spoken to him in the eight years since the bank had foreclosed on his farm implements dealership.

“I was going to spend the day with the boys.”

“Well, I’m taking them to see their grandparents.”

She pushed a lock of blonde hair behind her ear, a motion he knew so well it was almost part of him. Sam poured some corn flakes into his bowl.

“Why don’t you go and see your parents and leave them with me?”

He meant it as a concession, an apology, but somehow his voice emerged sounding not the least bit remorseful. Her eyes might have swallowed him whole.

“I’m taking the boys with me.”

And with that, she rose from her chair and strode out of the room.

Last night, moments before she’d locked him out of the master bedroom, she’d told him she was leaving, and he’d better call a lawyer and start thinking about how they would organize living apart; start thinking about all of those terrible intricacies. It was a threat she’d made a hundred times in the last five years, and for that reason Sam tried not to take it seriously, though it still unnerved him by pointing out the essential fragility of his seemingly unshakeable position in the world. Bank manager. Excellent health. Married fourteen years. Two children, nine and three, both healthy boys.

As his family left, Sam ruffled Michael’s hair, received a sloppy kiss from Ben, and sent his regards to Gwen’s parents. She did not respond. He stood in the living room and waved through the wall of glass as her new Buick pulled away. He hated the ugly thing, which only made her love it all the more.

Now he poured the boiling water over his tea bags, set down the kettle and walked out of the kitchen, across the living room and down the hallway towards Michael’s room. Clothes were strewn across the floor. He picked them up, threw them in the hamper and turned off the radio on the bedside table. Quiet. He sat down on the bed and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. Perhaps he should just shave it all off. That was the style now. The clients likely wouldn’t say much. Some of them kidded him about his fancy suits, but to most of them a suit was a suit. It was the guys back east who would never let him live down a haircut with too much attitude.

A group of tough-looking young men sneered at him from a poster. Were these Michael’s heroes? Obviously. They were on his wall. He thought of the time Old Sam -- his grandfather -- had torn down a poster of the Rolling Stones from his older brother Vern’s bedroom wall. Vern was furious, and Old Sam’s only explanation was that he didn’t like the look in their eyes. Sam would not tear down Michael’s poster, even if he didn’t like the look in the men’s eyes. He was not given to the dramatic actions of his grandfather.

What was that smell? Dirty laundry or some forgotten snack? His mother would never have allowed his room to get this messy. He felt tears in his eyes, took a deep breath, and rushed out of the room.

In the living room, where he’d stood watching his family drive away that morning, the blinds were closed against the sun, the room in shadow, the floor cut by slivers of light. The kettle clicked as it cooled on the stove. His tea would be steeped. He was about to put on another CD, The Goldberg Variations, but he paused and walked to the glass wall, wound open one of the blinds and peered out across Gwen’s green yard and blooming delphiniums to the expanse of the yellow valley. Not a soul. He’d been careful to pick a spot where they couldn’t see anyone and no one could see them. His parents’ house was only a mile away, and his older brother Vern’s trailer only half a mile, but both were safely obscured by a small hill of aggregate deposited during the last ice age. A beautiful hill. One side of it had been cut away by the creek, but the rest had been dense enough to resist thousands of years of wind and water.

He should close the blind and go back to his office with his tea and get some work done, but he knew it was pointless. His muscles ached. He couldn’t focus. He couldn’t escape the thought that his family might not be coming home. Though he tried to ignore it, the silence kept telling him. He loved Gwen and he loved his boys and he did not want to think of what would be left of his life if he lost them.

Editorial Reviews

“I’ve just finished The Last Cowboy.... I was absolutely gripped by long passages, didn’t want to put the book down [and] was as engaged as I’ve ever been.”
—Sharon Butala

“Gowan never wavers…the book simply flows. The Last Cowboy is an engaging book that is at once funny, poignant and a razor-sharp image of that most tender and terrible of entities: the family.”
The Globe and Mail

“It is when writing of southern Saskatchewan that Gowan, a Swift Current native, truly soars. He quite obviously knows and loves the turf, and he writes vividly of the switchbacks and the draws…His writing not only makes you want to visit the area, it convinces you that you have.”
The Globe and Mail (same review)

"An admirable quality in this novel is the way Gowan resists sentiment and simplicity….What The Last Cowboy does very well is restore the rural West’s complexity, which automatically reveals and mocks the cartoons that otherwise stand for truth."
National Post
"There’s much to enjoy in Gowan’s writing and the intricacies of his story telling. His work should be savoured, not hurried."
Star Phoenix
“Gowan’s sparse, unadorned prose speaks much between the lines. His characters are well-wrought, etched as with acid, and true. And The Last Cowboy continues — and ups the ante — in the newest vein of western CanLit.”
The Hamilton Spectator
"The Last Cowboy flows as smoothly as the wide prairie, thanks to Gowan’s easy-going, almost drawl-like writing style."
The Edmonton Journal
"Alberta writer Lee Gowan … puts a contemporary spin on the western novel …”
Winnipeg Free Press

Praise for Make Believe Love:
“Gowan’s command of language, his sense of place, his subject matter all make him a writer worth watching.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“A comedy that refuses to get cynical or mean. . . . Lee Gowan’s debut is funny and laidback [and] shot through with affection.”
The Vancouver Sun

“[A] wonderfully comic fable about love in the electronic age.”
Toronto Star

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