Cowboy Cum Laude
Kudos Or No, J.P.S. Brown Went On Writing 'Til The Cows Came Home.
By Sam Negri
The Outfit, by J.P.S. Brown (MQM Publishing). Paper, $20.
AUGUST 4, 1997: J.P.S. BROWN IS a Tucson novelist who hasn't been getting his share of respect in recent years, though he may be the quintessential regional writer. Many writers tend to work on their personal myths ad nauseam because it sells well and feels so good. Brown wrote his novels and faded back into his first love like a man whose ego needed fresh air and nothing more. And yet, few who write about the landscape of southern Arizona have ever experienced it the way Brown has--as a rancher, horseman, boxer, miner and cattle buyer--or written about it with such compelling intimacy.
Brown is known to his fans as the author of the Arizona Saga, consisting of The Blooded Stock, The Horseman, Ladino, and The Outfit. Brown's maternal grandparents had a homestead called El Durazno, a ranch near Harshaw, and the Arizona Saga is a fictionalized account of that family's history in the terrain which anyone familiar with the Patagonia and Santa Rita Mountains will easily recognize. There is hardly a single work of fiction that evokes the natural and cultural landscape of southern Arizona and northern Mexico as vividly as these four novels.
All of his books have long been out of print and hard to find, but last year The Outfit was re-issued by MQM Publishing, a new Tucson company owned by a couple of his friends.
Joseph Paul Summers Brown was born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1939, a time when his mother Mildred Sorrells, and his father, Paul Summers, were running the Rock Corral Ranch in the Tumacacori Mountains. His parents later divorced and his mother married a rancher and cattle buyer named Vivian Brown; but Joe kept his biological father present in his two middle names.
Brown, though he looks the part of the vaquero from the tips of his boots to the top of his ever-present black Stetson, is not your standard gosh-and-golly cowpoke with a tin of Copenhagen in his shirt pocket. When he was 9 years old, his parents sent him away to a boarding school in Santa Fe; after graduation he was sent to the University of Notre Dame. Even at Notre Dame, he was a little unusual: During the school year he studied for his degree in journalism, but he also turned into a champion boxer. In the summers he returned to horses and cows, working the family's Arizona ranch. Later he joined the Marines and worked at the Marine Corps Cold Weather Training Center in California, teaching rock climbing and animal packing during the summers and cold weather combat and survival skills in the winters. When he was discharged in 1958, he divided his time between Mexico and Arizona, selling cattle raised south of the border.
For him, writing always seemed secondary to the business of experiencing life. Most of his interests centered around horses and a desire to remain independent, and those absorbed most of his energy until 1964. That year Brown fought five boxing matches in Mexico and broke his right hand. Then he contracted hepatitis.
For the better part of a year he was sick and weak. Boxing was out of the question, and his cattle business had fallen apart. Brown was broke and living with his grandmother in Nogales when he started writing the stories that became the picaresque novel Jim Kane. He needed money, and there wasn't much he could handle, physically, except writing. At the time he naively believed, as many younger writers do, that the gap between writing and the next payday would be short. He was going to raise money by writing.
"I had no strength. I made myself write two hours or 1,000 words every day. That was all with a pen or typewriter. I was broke and the writing was an absolute and total necessity," he said. However, it was 1970 before Jim Kane was published. Paul Newman eventually purchased the rights to the book from Dial Press and turned it into the 1972 movie, Pocket Money, which starred Newman and the late Lee Marvin.
Between 1971 and 1993, Brown wrote nine novels and a short story collection in between stints trading cattle and horses, and running his own ranch. In the middle of everything else, he became a union wrangler and picked up jobs on Hollywood movies.
When The Blooded Stock came out in 1990, the Southwestern bibliophile Lawrence Clark Powell placed it on a list of Best Southwestern Books and wrote, "J.P.S. Brown could prove a successor to Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour."
"In his mind I'm sure that would be a compliment," Brown said, "and in my mind it wouldn't be. Zane Grey was no cowboy, and I am a fifth generation cowboy."
A few years ago, when Brown had a ranch up near Payson, I spent a day with him trying to track a stock-killing lion. Toward the end of the day, as he let the horses out to pasture, he talked about why he wrote about the cowboy's life.
"I write about it because it's what I know. What's good about a cowboy is the care and risks you take, the solitude and the beauty of the country you move in. It's about stamina and perseverance and an ability to perform without any background music or audience. A cowboy does his work 100 miles from anybody. When we got over that hill up there today, you're out of sight of everyone, and in there you do whatever is necessary without applause. You're out there to husband your cattle and bring that horse in as fresh as you can. That's what being a cowboy is. It's not these stories that have been concocted by Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour about how they always win their fist fights and they always get the rancher's daughter, and all that nonsense."
Nevertheless, when Bantam released the four books of the Arizona Saga in paper, the covers were plastered with dramatic kitsch--art of sober, heavily armed stock western characters.
"I hate that stuff," Brown said, but he was smiling, too. "Look at this one," he said, holding up a copy of The Horseman. "This guy doesn't even know how to hold a rifle!"
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