Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? They’re all off laughing at Prioleau’s Humorous History of the U.S.
By Robert Salvo
To start, an important disclosure: Prioleau Alexander and I were co-workers and officemates for a number of years. We generally found each other’s company pleasant and occasionally shared beers after work and (somewhat less frequently) indulged in harder potables during work — a practice known as “traditional journalism.” He still answers my texts within a reasonable timeframe, although the response time is noticeably faster if I end them with “War Eagle!”
My point is that before I formally begin this review of Where Have All The Cowboys Gone: Madness, Mayhem, and the Making of America, you should know I like Prioleau. A lot. I think he’s a great guy. But don’t fret, because I also had the singular experience of editing him for all those years, and I am well-versed in his literary foibles and flops. This includes his tendency to write things in long strings of frustrating-to-format dialogue, or misspell the same half-dozen words forever, or how he never during my tenure as editor learned a single one of the Mercury’s in-house style rules. I may have even, once or twice, asked if he had to stop the car fully for Auburn to award him his degree in English, or just roll the window down and drive real slowly.
Ribbing aside, Prioleau is actually a richly skilled writer, and he’s crafted something quite special here. Mr. Alexander’s latest book is outstanding — thoughtfully made, surprising in scope and depth and sure to become a favorite for many. It’s a trip through the history of the United States with the very specific intention of helping readers learn from our nation’s mistakes, but unlike many who undertake this mission, Prioleau approaches the topic from a place of deep filial affection for our country — not for what it “might be” or for a white-washed Pollyanna fairytale about what we could dream it was, but with a true sense of warts-and-all acceptance.
That viewpoint is what really elevates the book, which never failed to surprise me with its earnestness. Sure, his trademark humor is stamped on every page and readers who have followed him since Do You Want Fries With That? will draw mild chuckles of amusement and deep belly laughs. But there is an underlying sense seriousness and weight here as well.
When I first picked up the book, I thought I was in for cover-to-cover zaniness, in the style of humorous histories like 1066 And All That … or Dave Barry Slept Here. Nope. There’s plenty of well-researched and fact-checked history here, enough to serve as a keen refresher on a few topics you may have grown a bit rusty on since high school (how much do you really remember about King Philip’s War, anyway?). Further, Prioleau devotes plenty of time to the general awfulness of slavery, poverty, tyranny, the plight of the American Indian and even class struggles in the everyday lives of characters he brilliantly dubs Joes Twelvepack, Sixpack and Emptycan.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Mr. Alexander’s deep personal conservatism is still on full display, and the reader can do with that what they will. He manages to get a Hillary Clinton joke in a book whose timeline ends with the election of Richard Nixon. His view of the causes of the War Between the States is heavy on the theories of a few libertarian economists like Walter E. Williams and Thomas DiLorenzo that largely skirt the essential social aspects of the conflict. The Reconstruction Era and Jim Crow are both frowned upon, but in far less detail than, say, the aforementioned King Philip’s War.
What we are left with is a book that will likely be off-putting to the mindless partisans of both left and right, but one that hopefully will leave many, many more readers who reside a step or two closer to the middle truly thinking and engaged with the material. If they don’t go that, they’ll at least get some merriment from it. Perfect for the history aficionado and the casual reader alike, it is by turns thought-provoking and rollickingly funny. (I make special note here of his trademark dialogue, employed expertly as he imagines a conversation among a Confederate veteran, a freedman, a Mexican, an American Indian and a ranch owner that leads to the birth of the titular American cowboy.) His faith in the American experiment, the promise that a free people can improve — that we have improved, both ourselves and our world, through hard work and right action — is compelling and convincing. With Where Have All Cowboys Gone, Prioleau Alexander has given us a work of head and heart. I can’t recommend it heartily enough. Buy your copy here.
Robert Salvo is a freelance writer with a special focus on real estate. Reach him at email@example.com.