BOOK REVIEW / Walk on the wild side: Cowboys are my weakness - by Pam Houston, Virago pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS collection of stories is a lot less breezy than its title. You might think a weakness for cowboys was like a passion for ice-cream, not something that need ruin a person's life. But deep down there is nothing funny about an obsessive need for sexual partners who cannot respect you.

In some circles Pam Houston may be felt to be letting the side down, with heroines who rapidly tire of any man they can tame. It's true that she can seem to be colluding with Mr Couch Potato Macho, who fears that he will forfeit his primal allure if he does the washing-up even once. But her most distinctive heroines are much too extreme for lazily chauvinist tastes.

Self-destructiveness, like swearing or being drunk, is more severely judged in women than in men. But what is a reckless woman to do, pretend she's a china shepherdess? Arguably, an immature person will say, 'I'll pretend I am as I would want to be, based on the latest research', while someone further on in life will say, 'My self-

oppression is my self-oppression, I'll start from there.' Perhaps half the stories are written from the first point of view, wry, rueful and somewhat unrealistic in their zeal for personal change. Here it sometimes seems that 'good sex with a nice man' is all it will take to set the world to rights.

If all else fails, nature will heal the heroines of these stories, but even here the extremity of Houston's vision means that nature is too inhospitable to be easily moralised. A night in an ice cave blocks depressive thoughts by almost freezing the brain, while the desert teaches the most austere lesson imaginable, with its plants 'designed to live almost forever without the simple and basic ingredients they need the most.'

The stories written from a complicit point of view are very different. What is striking in them is just how much these women are prepared to pay for the privilege of being short-changed. The narrator of 'What Shock Heard' is twice assaulted, once sexually, but the possibility that she might tell someone - anyone - about it is not raised in the story. It's as if she would be excluded from the magic circle of men if she took exception to violence. Women in these stories seem to be seeking not a gentle lover but an abusive father.

In the two most far-reaching stories, a woman pits herself against nature at its least indulgent: a swollen river in 'Selway', the Alaskan tundra in 'Dall'. This is a highly unusual situation in literature, and perhaps it is churlish to notice that these women are nevertheless always trying to prove something - not necessarily something obvious - to the men they're with. Men pitting themselves against nature, after all, are always proving something 'to themselves'.

In 'Selway', the heroine is enabled to exceed her limits by an empowering figure who is hardly to be expected in this book: 'When I came close to panic I thought of Rambo, as if he were a real person, as if what I was doing was possible, and proven before, by him.' Often Houston tries to resolve on the level of lyric the differences that propel her narratives and drive her characters: the northern lights are 'unearthly and somehow female', while a mother bear who warns her away from the cubs is glossed as in part 'asking me to come along'. These attempts at moralising lyric are necessarily doomed; they drop Patience Strong by parachute into a stark terrain where she-Rambo has failed.

In 'Dall', Houston's heroine, a hunting guide like the author, tries to find a woman-compatible aspect to the Alaskan wilderness. When a ram is wounded, she knows it 'the way a mother knows her child's been hurt' - but she also helped to put the hunter within range of his target. She is consoled when she notices that two rams are fighting even as they flee the men with guns: 'Maybe the reason why the ewes and the lambs lived separately was that the rams were not so different from the hunters after all. . .' At moments like these Pam Houston seems to understand everything about the situation she describes, except her need to be part of it.