As "Boleto" opens, 23-year-old Will Testerman is living at home on the family ranch near Lost Cabin, Wyo., having returned after his stint with "a big-money outfit in Texas" ended abruptly and rather disastrously. Will now has a bit of money, a bit of life experience, a bit of self-knowledge -- particularly about "what he himself had best stay away from" -- and a plan. He buys a beautiful little filly, an unfinished horse, intending to train her himself -- slowly, patiently, shaping her into the best horse she can be, a horse that could make a name for him and be his ticket to a prosperous future.
Will knows horses. He's not nearly as good with people. Toward the end of the novel, he tells his filly a story, "how there once was this kid from Wyoming who wanted to live in an uncomplicated way and make horses into the best horses they could be. And how this kid, because he was too stupid or too broke or too ignorant about what went on inside of his own head, couldn't ever seem to make that happen." The kid, Will tells her, "kept getting the people so wrong that it didn't matter if he got the horses right."
Still, how could he not get the people wrong when his heart beats in tune with horses and his mindscape is the austere Wyoming horizon? When Will moves to California to learn to train polo horses, the driver who brings Will his filly observes that there's plenty of money in polo, so he reckons Will is there to get some of it. "Not right away," Will agrees, "but eventually." "Eventually?" the driver laughs. "You must be from Wyoming and not from regular America if that's how you talking about it."
There is an elegiac quality here ("last will and testament" haunts our lead character's name), a sense that the integrity of the Old West is vanishing forever. "When I was a kid you couldn't pay people to live in this part of the state. Too cold. Too much isolation," Will's father laments. "Now everybody in America thinks they're in love with fresh air and isolation." Will's code -- "you do a thing, and you do it right, and it gets done" -- perfect for horse training on the ranch, leaves him vulnerable to the machinations of the rich, careless people who inhabit "regular America," people used to getting their own way by using their advantages to gain still more advantages.
Despite the elegiac undertones, though, Alison Hagy is not a mythmaker; she sees her Western characters clearly, without romanticizing: we see the barely suppressed anger of men like Will's father, "committed to a thin, practiced diet of low expectations," the other characters' restlessness and yearning for a ticket out.
Like the Wyoming landscape, this novel has an austere beauty. Western landscapes are described in fresh, precise terms (in late Wyoming spring, "the river was as crumpled and brown as a paper bag") that convey an intimate sense of place without sentimentalizing. "Boleto" is a quiet novel, but one that reverberates like a stone thrown into a deep, still mountain lake.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.