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Western ways

Thomas Cobb’s long road to Shavetail
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  February 20, 2008

The frontier West. That setting is as perilous as the human condition itself, the stark landscape a visual parable. What more could psychologically involving literature ask for? First-rate American authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry, and Elmore Leonard certainly have discovered the advantages, as have their readers. And David Milch chose that fraught terrain for the dystopic showdowns of Deadwood.
Author Thomas Cobb can be asked about such matters and whatever else you’d like at a reading on February 28 at 7:30 pm at Rhode Island College (other dates at
The occasion is his latest novel, Shavetail (Scribner, $25), which was published this month. Cobb is a professor of English at Rhode Island College, where he is director of the creative writing program. His previous creations were the 1987 novel Crazy Heart, about a country music singer, and the 2003 short story collection Acts of Contrition.
His decision to place a novel in the West of 1871 had little to do with commercial possibilities, what with the drumroll of potential violence in the background of such a setting, but the tension of such possible peril certainly keeps Shavetail a page-turner. The title refers to the term for a young, stubborn mule, which has to be taught by grown-ups of its species how to behave. This is the coming-of-age story of Private Ned Thorne, a 17-year-old from Connecticut who lied about his age to join the Army. He finds himself in the Arizona desert, learning the ropes of soldiering, largely through the smart but self-serving advice of the wily veteran Brickner, an expert in rule-breaking.
Ned is fleeing guilt over his responsibility — or so he feels — for a death back East and wants to prove himself a man. Opportunity arises in an off-the-books pursuit of a band of Apaches who have killed some ranchers, after themselves escaping a massacre. They’ve kidnapped a white woman, and thoughts of her noble rescue fill the imaginations not only of the boy but of the self-righteous Captain Franklin and the self-doubting Lieutenant Austin, both of whose points of view alternate with Ned’s in the narrative.
“I grew up loving the West, loving the myths of the West,” says Cobb, speaking in the writing studio he built on his 10 acres in Foster, where he lives with his wife Randy. “By the time I was a teenager and was starting to figure out a little bit who I was, I kind of got embarrassed about the West. Because it was hokey, it was Hollywood.”
He was born in Chicago but raised in Arizona, where he remained until age 35, when he went to the University of Houston for his Ph.D. His thesis advisor there was celebrated New Yorker writer Donald Barthelme.
After publishing Crazy Heart, Cobb started working on a novel based on the seven years he spent teaching writing in a prison.
“That’s a sad story,” he says. And he isn’t referring to the novel. “I realized at one point that I had just written it to death, that there was nothing left of it anymore. It got slicker and slicker, and whatever heart and soul it had was dead. It was really a traumatic time. So one day I got up and started writing Shavetail.”
But difficulties were not over for Cobb, whose character-oriented first novel was easy-going. Writing Shavetail was also about plot. So storylines were taken that led to dead ends; characters were introduced, withdrawn, conflated with others. When the manuscript got to more than 700 pages, Cobb got angry, put it in a drawer and practiced plotting by writing his book of short-stories. After four years, he came back to Shavetail refreshed and instructed. He found it easier to carve away all that was not necessary. The published version is 368 pages.
Cobb, 60, has been teaching for 20 years at RIC, teaching himself how to write as well, he says.
So now he’s working on a historical “nonfiction-novel,” about three men involved in “a big shootout” in Arizona in 1918 that killed three lawmen.
“They were chased across Arizona and into Mexico for 30-some-odd days,” Cobb says. “It’s a great story. It’s just the best story.”
It sounds like this time we won’t have to wait 20 years to find out what happened.

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