Wearing His Hat With Pride : A drifter overcomes cowboy Angst : COWBOY ANGST, By Jasen Emmons (Soho Press: $21; 264 pp.)

Susan Heeger is a free-lance writer and editor

The trouble with cowboys is the way they make the rest of us feel. Jeez, do those guys have guts . They're as noble as a mountain range, as straight as a highway across a prairie. They don't talk much, but oh, the poetry in their weary eyes 'neath the shadow of a Stetson.

Let me say right now that if you wonder who you are or where you're going in life, you're not a cowboy. If this bothers you, you've got cowboy angst, a term coined by Dennis McCance, the seriously drifting hero of this novel by the same name.

As the curtain rises on Jasen Emmons' book, poor Den is drumming in a beat-up bar on his last night in a country band. Tomorrow he'll leave the girl he loves and head for Montana, to set the record straight with his parents. They are under the delusion that he's in law school. He was once. He isn't now. Where does that leave him? He's not the musician he longs to be, not the lawyer his folks want, above all, not the buckaroo boys dream of.

"Why wasn't I a cowboy?" he asks himself. "I played in a cowboy band. Even gave it a cowboy name."

Exactly, pardner. Building your life on a fantasy doesn't make it come true, any more than going to law school for a semester turns you into your dad.

Any doubts about this are eventually laid to rest, though not speedily. Dennis flies home and hangs around for 80 pages before dropping the bombshell. Dad, an attorney, of course, but a cowboy at heart, punches him, cuts off the cash flow and makes disparaging remarks about "your little band." Mom weighs in with a slap, Brother sneers and Dennis wonders what he's going to do now.

Everyone has advice. The woman he loves--the former singer in his defunct band--wants him to move to Austin with her and start a new band. The father of an old girlfriend takes him aside and counsels weightily: "Never stop taking care of yourself. If there's one thing I've learned in my 26 years as a doctor, it's to never stop taking care of yourself."

Meanwhile, the only relief Dennis finds from his angst wallow is in music. As he once did as a teen, he shuts himself in his boyhood music room and pounds the skins. "It was so ridiculously easy, so wholly natural and innate, so joyful and freeing that I couldn't imagine why everyone couldn't play the drums," he muses. "You didn't even have to think. Your hands and feet did everything for you without being told. Two rim shots, a flurry of sixteen notes on the tom-toms, crash cymbal, ha!"

Not surprisingly, as Dennis casts about for direction, a big question in his mind is: Does life have to be hard? Must grown-up work be odious? Furthermore, he wonders, what if you're good but not dazzling at your chosen vocation? Is it enough just to love it--and go on doing it?

Part of his answer comes from his friend George, a 45-year-old steel guitarist with whom he plays whenever he's in Montana. Between sets in a cowboy bar, George confides that the bravest thing he's ever done was to acknowledge that he's never going to be a great musician. There's courage, he implies, in accepting your own ordinariness and still enjoying what you do.

If this sounds like the chorus of a heart-twanging country song, you've got the flavor of the book. Big themes, not much depth, a lot of feeling, a lot of fun. Emmons attacks the coming-of-age theme like a 12-string guitar. His writing is lively and polished, and his man Dennis is thoroughly likable, if a tad on the passive side. Some of the book's best scenes are set in run-down watering holes where all it takes is a careless elbow to start a brawl and the crowd claps harder if there's an ex-con in the band.

Emmons sometimes misses on the heavier, interpersonal moments, such as one in which Dennis takes the depressed ex-husband of a woman he's slept with out to breakfast. Instead of giving Dennis a chance to learn something about the nature of love, commitment and loss--to benefit from the wisdom of an ordinary man--Emmons fills the space with yet more idle chat about the music business.

But this is not a novel that wastes time moping, except in the sense that any program of cowboy melodies must mix some slow sad ones in with the toe-tappers and send the fans home happy. By the end of the last page, tears have been shed, punches have been thrown and Dennis' hat sits more firmly on his head, but it may be hard to remember exactly how it got that way.

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