22 October 2009

That Cow Came Home

It started with a challenge from an author friend, Lewis Buzbee. He posted this on Facebook: “I just finished reading ‘Cow Across America’ by Dale Neal, and if you want to be reminded of how good novels can be, why we need them, and how they can, yes, make you laugh out loud and cry at the same time, read it. I guarantee it. You buy it and don't like it, I'll refund your money.”

So I went out and purchased the book from my friendly helpful local independent bookstore, and then I read it, and Lewis definitely does not owe me a cent.

I can’t say I’m quite as all-out enthusiastic as Lewis, but the book is excellent. It’s a first novel, it’s a grabber of a story, it’s multi-generational, specific to the Carolina mountains and at the same time universal as Homer.

Not to get all highfalutin about it, because the book is anything but high brow: Dwight Martin is a kid bored with visiting his grandparents in the country, but surprisingly intrigued by his grandfather’s stories. The stories may be true, or maybe not, but they’re good stories and one of the kids in the story also is named Dwight, and Pop has a story about that, too.

The title “Cow Across America” refers to a group of connected stories Pop tells about himself and a boy named Dwight and a cow named Daisy who one summer decided to walk west, all the way west, coast to coast. Pop’s stories are spread over years and many summer visits by the young Dwight to Pop’s isolated hill farm. Turns out the boys and the cow got home again. At least the way Pop tells it, they did.

The reader wonders, while wandering through these delicious tales, who, finally, is the narrator of the book, and what is HIS story? Stories about Dwight and Wylie and Daisy are set far in the past. Then there is Dwight Martin growing up in the present and learning about love and life.

In the opening scene: “Two weeks shy of turning ten, Dwight Martin wrote his first novel. It took most of the morning, far longer than he would have believed, and his finger hurt where the pencil had pressed a saddle-shaped callous against the knuckle, but he kept writing, filling the blue-ruled pages of a wire-bound notebook, nodding slowly as his sentences raced toward the red margins.”

In the last pages Dwight is grown up, waiting for a plane in an airport lounge, still wondering about things: “(He) never understood why travelers read novels in airports, noses pressed to the latest best-seller about serial killers or lawyers, while real life streamed about them in the terminal, a thousand and one stories on their way to different destinies and unforseen fates.”

This is excellent stuff, playing with our sense of time and place, moving backwards into myth and forward into the unknown, all the while staying centered on a boy’s life.

Author Dale Neal lives in Asheville and writes for a local newspaper. “Cow Across America” is his first novel, and it won the Novello Literary Award, intended to promote Carolina writers.

Lewis Buzbee dropped me a follow-up note: “Dale is a friend of mine, a writer friend. I've known him for 15 years probably. I had no involvement in the making of this book, other than being his pal... with this book, I really lost track when I was reading it, forgot that it was Dale. I was just reading a wonderful book... really glad you liked it, Tony.”


“Cow Across America” by Dale Neal. Novello Festival Press hard cover $21.95. ISBN 9780981519234.

Novello Festival Press announces publication of Dale Neal’s first novel.

Fascinating essay by the author on how he came to write this book.

There is a connection here with the novel “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier. Charles and his wife Katherine in 2004  founded the Cold Mountain Foundation to promote and support other writers from the Carolinas. Their funds helped subsidize publication of “Cow Across America.”

“H.L. Mencken, in his famous book The American Language, mentions highfalutin as an example of the many native U.S. words coined during the 19th-century period of vigorous growth. Although highfalutin is characteristic of American folk speech, it is not a true regionalism because it has always occurred in all regions of the country, with its use and popularity spurred by its appearance in print. The origin of highfalutin, like that of many folk expressions, is obscure. It has been suggested that the second element, -falutin, comes from the verb flute-hence high-fluting, a comical indictment of people who think too highly of themselves.”  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright c 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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