The rough ride home for an African-American cowboy

The prodigal son always comes home - in life, in parable, and in literature. And he has returned once more in "Gabriel's Story," a haunting debut by David Anthony Durham.

In this incarnation, the wayward youth is a 15-year-old African-American boy in the empty middle of a continent, caught between youth and manhood, naivete and wisdom, family and flight.

Fleeing racism in Reconstruction-era Baltimore, Gabriel Lynch travels with his mother and younger brother to his stepfather's hard-scrabble homestead in 1870s Kansas.

The prodigal son begins his journey as another ends: "The boy had measured their progress across the land through the warped glass of the train's windows. He had seen it all unfurl, from the tidewater up over the broken back of the mountains, out onto rolling hills and into the old frontier, now pacified and peopled and farmed, and further still, through cities and small towns and finally out onto this great expanse, across which they traveled like fleas on a mammoth's back.... He searched in the land's dark contours for things he dared not name aloud, and he held within himself a rage of voices that to the outside world looked and sounded like silence."

Arriving at their new home, they immediately discover it won't provide all the relief they had hoped. "Life out here ain't being like a slave," Gabriel's stepfather, Solomon, tells the family, "but it's a might harder than the city life y'all been living, might harder than we knew 'fore we got here."

Gabriel's mother and brother buckle down in their new life, determined to make the best of their fresh start. But the hard life of a sod-buster galls Gabriel. As he grows increasingly disconnected from his family, he meets James, an equally restless black teen from the nearby town. Together, they decide to forsake the farm for higher adventure.

They haven't left town before they meet Marshall Hogg, the disturbingly eloquent and psychotic leader of a band of ruthless horse thieves. They join Hogg's drovers, believing them to be nothing more than romantic cowboys, but their sinister intention is soon manifested in an inexorable series of robberies, rapes, and murders. Gabriel and James are trapped, too frightened to leave, too innocent to stay.

Thus begins a trek into the haunting terrain of the American Southwest, a journey begun in hope, but soon steeped with danger, propelled by a cast of brutal characters.

As with the Biblical story of the prodigal son, Gabriel finds the "outside" world less exciting and more threatening than he dreamed. He returns to Kansas wiser and chastened, prepared to take his place behind the plow and, more importantly, at the family hearth.

"Gabriel's Story" is a classical bildungsroman - a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character - told in masterful prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy.

The son of Trinidadian immigrants, Durham won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award when he was in his early 20s, but "Gabriel's Story" is his first novel. His is not just a startlingly poetic African-American voice but a welcome new voice in the rich spectrum of American letters.

Ron Franscell's latest novel is 'The Deadline' (Write Way). He lives in Lakewood, Colo.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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