BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Rodeo Riders Buck the Odds, Live a Dream : BITING THE DUST: The Wild Ride and Dark Romance of the Rodeo Cowboy and the American West by Dirk Johnson ; Simon & Schuster $22, 240 pages

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Cowboys disappeared into the realm of myth and matinees long ago, but Dirk Johnson has searched out an odd corner of the popular culture where real live cowboys can still be found--the rodeo, which Johnson describes in "Biting the Dust" as "the world where the Old West still lives, the last untamed range of the true American cowboy."

"In the ceaseless moaning wind, swirling with old ghosts and faded dreams, there is a whisper of the survivor on the Great Plains, the soul of the defiant," Johnson writes in a characteristic burst of charged-up prose. "And when the rodeo comes to town, the whisper becomes a roar. We're still here."

Johnson introduces us to the North American rodeo circuit, a curious pocket of professional sports where young men (and the occasional young woman) who know how to rope and ride and wrangle compete for modest prizes at the risk of life and limb. A year on the circuit might take a cowboy down a hundred thousand miles of road to a hundred rodeos, but he's lucky if he can make a living at all.

"A rodeo cowboy can become a star and never earn more than $50,000 a year before expenses," the author explains. "Some of the sport's biggest celebrities live in house trailers."

Still, it's the enduring and irresistible appeal of the cowboy myth that explains why the young men in "Biting the Dust"--Joe and Ty and Bud and Clint, among others--have taken up saddle and spurs in the age of the Information Superhighway. And Johnson himself unabashedly celebrates the rodeo rider as an embodiment of the loftiest elements of the cowboy ethos: courage, honor, a stoic reserve and a kind of chivalry.

"There is no trash-talking among contestants in a rodeo," writes Johnson. "The guy in the next chute might also be a travel partner later that night. And if he wins the check, he might also buy dinner."

Johnson may indulge in a bit of hero worship, but he does not pretty up the life of a rodeo cowboy. The risks of injury and bankruptcy are about the same; the pay-off, if it ever comes, is meager; and the contemporary rodeo cowboy must cope not only with raging bulls and bucking broncos but also bill-collectors and animal-rights activists: "Say No to Rodeo" is the legend on one picket sign spotted at a Denver rodeo.

Johnson is the Denver bureau chief of the New York Times, and he takes good notes--his book is full of colorful lore, ranging from the lineage of a rodeo horse to the unique design of a rodeo saddle to the proper technique for sizing up a bronco in the last moments before the chute opens and the horse tries its best to kill its rider.

But the author also aspires toward something grander than journalism, and "Biting the Dust" is alternately rendered in the lush tones of an old-fashioned travelogue ("Rodeo drapes itself in Americana, the legacy of the Old West, the triumph of God-fearing settlers") and in the clipped phrases of a John Wayne movie.

"I want to be free," says one young man who quits "the eight-to-four factory trap" to hit the road as a rodeo cowboy. "Don't want no boss. Don't want nobody tellin' me what to do."

Among the most telling facts of the cowboy life is the grueling itinerary of the circuit riders as they hustle from rodeo to rodeo across the western half of America: Denver and Fort Worth and Las Vegas, but also the cow towns and backwaters and whistle-stops of the American heartland. At moments, we see that a rodeo rider more nearly resembles a long-haul trucker or a ballplayer in the minor leagues, even if Johnson insists on portraying him as a knight errant.

But it's hard to resist the notion that these young men have tapped into some wellspring of American consciousness and connected with an authentic source of America's image of itself. That's what makes "Biting the Dust" into something more than yet another reprise of the cowboy myth.

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