Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys

by Aaron Tucker

Aaron Tucker (Julia Polyck-O’Neill)

The days of the western’s primacy in popular culture may have come and gone, but its underlying value system of an ascendant masculinity has managed to stave off extinction; this is the premise of Aaron Tucker’s experimental novel, Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys, which follows an unnamed man in search of his ex-girlfriend after an explosion in Toronto’s downtown core. The man experiences vivid hallucinations that lead him to believe a chemical agent may have been released in the atmosphere; his memories begin spiralling backwards to his childhood in the Okanagan Valley and his strained relationship with his deceased father. 

Mere days before the explosion rocks the city – the possibilities for this include a terrorist attack, a gas-line explosion, and a Russian fighter jet shot down by the United States Air Force – the man reunites with Melanie, with whom he’d had a four-month fling, and they discuss her yearly ritual of rewatching John Ford’s The Searchers, which stars film icon John Wayne. Melanie watched the movie with her father as a way to bond with him, and even though she finds the film particularly unsavoury in its depiction of Native Americans and its unapologetic jingoism, she cannot help revisiting it. 

“You need men like him,” Melanie says about Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards, a Confederate soldier who must save his niece from a Comanche chief. “Angry men, who will fight and stay angry, keep coming so long as the world turns. Otherwise the world stays wild. They tame enough of it so that civilization can come in behind them.”

In a conceit that echoes the trials of a western’s protagonist but renders the narrator’s search particularly otiose, Tucker places every pedestrian obstacle imaginable in the path of his redundant “hero” to see if he can measure up to glory: construction workers blocking the sidewalk, menacing-looking porta-potties, and a tourist attempting to take his photograph are just some of the instances that evoke dread and meek paralysis in him on this ill-omened rescue attempt. The stark contrast between the protagonist and the qualities Wayne embodied in a 50-year career becomes unavoidably rich with significance, calling into question the modern day social function of hypermasculinity despite Tucker’s obvious love of the western genre. 

The first half of the book is written in the form of a terse dialogue. Tucker then layers his prose with Modernist flourishes in the second section, evoking the writing of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. This gives the book a jittery quality, and while the conceptual pairing of the western’s beau ideal with its subjective, hallucinatory antithesis makes for stimulating reading, at times this cultural critique of machismo comes at the expense of plot and pacing.

Tucker writes about the power of film to creep into our collective consciousness with expressive accuracy, and his apocalyptic vision of the last cowboy warns that as archetypes intersect with a toxic ideology, it can only lead to a cretinous kind of irrelevance. 


Reviewer: Jean Marc Ah-Sen

Publisher: Coach House Books


Price: $23.95

Page Count: 160 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-55245-462-6

Released: June

Issue Date: June 2023

Categories: Fiction: Novels, Reviews