Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: Cowkind

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Cowkind
Author: Ray Petersen
Date: 1996
Publisher: St Martin’s Press
ISBN: 0-312-14302-8
Length: 193 pages
Quote: “He was just another man, like all men. Only interested in what was in it for them.”
For the character Bossy, from whose point of view this novel is written, what’s in it for men is milk. This is a novel about a dairy farm, in the early 1970s. Even the cows have their generation gaps.
Cowkind is supposed to be funny. I didn’t laugh. In a sense the cows’ family problems can be read as a parody of the stereotypical human family problems of this period, but the father who gets grumpy when he thinks about his own father’s death, the girl whose boyfriend’s mother is sweetly telling him why he shouldn’t marry her while the boyfriend’s father is molesting her, the farmer who hasn’t bought milking machines but is willing to mutilate the tails of cows who won’t keep their tails out of the pail, are sad and off-putting rather than funny to me. They are too much like real farmers—the kind who didn’t prosper—to be funny. They’re not intelligent enough to stir up much sympathy either, but they come too close to being a serious analysis of What Went Wrong With Some Family Farms. Even the climactic scene, in which a psychically gifted cow telepathically heals a “haunted” man, failed to raise a chuckle from me.
Perhaps if Cowkind had achieved a clear positive vision of the hope it offers, the sense of transcendent “oneness” bonding and healing the cows and their humans, it would have been a pleasant New Agey read. I suspect the reason why this didn’t happen has something to do with Petersen’s observations of cows as thick-hided, thick-headed, rather numb animals. Everyone knows that dogs and horses have social and emotional feelings that aren’t quite like humans’, but are close enough that humans can get a realistic sense of how different their feelings are. Most chickens have been highly bred for stupidity, but now and then one meets a relatively clever chicken and realizes that, when chickens have the full use of their tiny scatty brains, their emotional reactions are remarkably like humans’. This does not happen with cows. The more time you spend with cows, the more you notice how few social and emotional reactions they display, and how alien their reactions are when they show any. I could suspend disbelief in a horse sensing and healing a man’s memories; it might be fiction, but I’d bet Lynn Andrews could make it good fiction. I can’t suspend disbelief in a cow doing that. And yet Petersen’s tone is too earnest for me to be able to read the shamanic cow scene as a joke.
So I don’t get it. I don’t get into it. I usually don’t get into fiction written for adults anyway, and maybe this is due to some lack of empathy or imagination rather than the shortcomings of novelists. But I can tell you that, for a novel in which different cattle breeding techniques are described and a wholesome teenaged girl is molested, Cowkind is not exactly obscene. (We’re not forced to know exactly how the girl is molested, we’re only forced to realize what loathsome people her prospective in-laws are.) More goes on in this novel than the usual sequence of adulteries and murders among people who should all have been “killed,” written out of any publishable stories by their authors, before they ever saw the printed page. Petersen really is trying to make a statement about family farms, although it’s hard to be sure, just from reading Cowkind, how he would prefer that the statement be summarized. If Cowkind doesn’t quite manage to be Serious Literature, at least it does try; at least Petersen deserves some respect for having the courage to try.
Maybe some cow lover out there will enjoy Cowkind more than I did. I hope so. The online cost will be $5 + $5 for shipping (shipping charges can be consolidated), out of which Petersen or a charity of his choice will receive $1.