Title: Calvin’s Cowboy
Author: Drew Hunt
Cover Artist: J.M. Snyder
Buy link: Amazon.com
Publisher: JMS Publishing
Buy Link: N/A
Genre: Cowboy Contemporary
Length: 69,000 words (228 pages)
Rating: 3.25 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Damon
REVIEW SUMMARY: A sexy setup and two appealing characters that don’t quite earn their spurs.
BLURB: Calvin Hamilton reluctantly returns to his home town of Parish Creek, Texas, to sell his parents’ house. Finding the place in need of repair he hires John “Brock” Brockwell to renovate the house before putting it on the market. Brock bares a passing resemblance to Gary Cooper, especially as he often wears western clothing. Calvin has always had a weakness for cowboys. Time has reversed the two men’s fortunes. In high school Brock was the big man on campus, his popularity allowing him to hide his true nature. Calvin was a nerd, bullied by most of the jocks for being perceived as gay. Now Calvin is a successful New York advertising executive, and Brock is a divorced father with a teenage son who faces financial ruin, unable to pay his late father’s hospital bills. Can Calvin put past bitterness behind him and help the cowboy with whom he is rapidly falling in love? Will the deeply closeted Brock be able to admit he has feelings for Calvin? Or will pride, fear, distance, and the past prevent them from building a future together?
Calvin’s Cowboy is a gentle unconflicted romance with appealing characters and a sturdy setup for drama which proceeds in pleasant stages. “Coming down to sell the old homestead” is a solid genre plot in M/M, as is “reconnecting with the hot jock” of your high school dreams. Hunt quickly sketches aggressive city mouse Calvin in broad strokes and his rugged lover Brock gets much the same treatment. Their ending is in sight from the opening and with no substantive obstacles interfering with the heroes’ happiness, it is less a sweeping romance than a sentimental amble.
Full disclosure: I was raised in Texas, on a ranch, and I live in Manhattan. Since these are the two locations for the book, I knew going in that my sense of location for both of these settings had to be set aside a bit. I don’t generally expect realism from my romance, and in this case that’s a good thing.
The real strength of Drew Hunt’s book is in its hook: a hometown reunion between two men finally able love each other. The chemistry between Calvin and Brock sizzles; the sex they share is warm and winning. The intimacy they explore together builds our grasp of their histories and compatibility and drives the plot forward with calm focus. Their physicality is more intriguing and character-based than any other part of their brief time together, barring an initial bathroom interlude which was as bizarre and unmotivated a sex scene as I’ve ever encountered (but more on that shortly). Hunt’s book kicks off with a textbook gay-for-you setup: an out gay man headed home to small-town Texas where he meets a straight-arrow cowboy so love can blossom. Cool. The potential for conflict and character growth is rock-solid, if familiar. These men could navigate some complicated social and sexual terrain to reach each other… But they don’t.
Herein lies my main difficulty with Calvin’s Cowboy.
Thrown together romantically within 24 hours of reconnecting, Calvin and Brock chug along their tracks towards their happy-ending with the steadiness of a train. Minor speedbumps are dealt with in a few pages, letting our heroes get back to the sweet (but not particularly dramatic) process of… being happy together. I don’t mind light romance, but this absence of stakes started nagging at me, because the book nipped every source of tension in the bud, quickly and pointedly. In several situations (a cancer scare, a late-night breakdown, parental coldness, homophobic coworkers, culture shock), opportunities for complication or character conflict hovered just offstage, never quite manifesting. Other minor things rubbed at my enjoyment like pebbles in a boot: lots of slang used incorrectly, repetitious conversations, and long stretches of activity without action, but overall I found the world engaging and the setup juicy with possibility.
The meat of the story is the mellow unfolding of Calvin and Brock’s desire for each other and the perfect solution they represent to each other’s lacks. Brock needs an escape from his dead-end life and Calvin craves a cowboy to idolize and a “lost puppy” to rescue. Both men dwell explicitly on this conundrum and express pangs about their respective immaturities: Brock protesting every time Calvin’s wallet comes out and Calvin defending his “middle school” obsession. They know something isn’t quite right, but the intense attraction between them is like bait in a pleasant trap closing around them. Actually they HAVE to get together because how else are they going to solve their problems? Not by growing or changing, certainly.
And that’s disappointing, because these guys are extremely sexy together and part of the anticipation in Gay-for-You stories is the ways men navigate social compromise and personal identity. Reading, I felt like Hunt was so eager to get them together, that he forgot to keep them apart. Tension is essential to any story, and the “apart” is what makes a romance great. But after a day of circling, our boys are a match made in denim with no real trouble. Then, because something has to happen, the couple spends the rest of the book grappling with Brock’s endless catalog of offstage failures and tragedies.
This is the point when the story makes its worst mistake and takes its title literally: Calvin buys a cowboy.
That’s not hyperbole. For the remaining 200 pages of the story, Calvin pays for everything. Using the limitless wealth to which all New Yorkers apparently have access, Calvin pays every bill, every debt, every purchase, every meal, every expense that might bar a Happy Ending. And that is a problem. Having a gorgeous, rich, obsessive boyfriend who pays for everything without consequence sounds wonderful, right? But if there is no consequence, if there is no limit to the money, if there is no COST to all that spending, then the gift and the gratitude feel unearned. Trouble is, this story uses gratitude constantly to motivate both characters. Moreover, Brock must submit to infantilization since he is never permitted to support himself or develop the ability. That’s a bummer, not a blessing. No stakes. No tension. No growth. So what this boundless, incessant generosity sets up is “heroes” that stay stuck in their respective ruts and a “happy ending” that feels a little hollow.
What took me longer to realize is why Calvin feels equally false. He fantasizes about cowboys, generalizes about “the country” the way someone from a city would on a diet of Hollywood Westerns. Calvin’s fascination with Gary Cooper and cowboy corniness, pivotal to the plot and central to their relationship, rings completely false because he grew up in cow country before absconding for the Big, Bad Apple. The nonstop cornpone clichés about rustlin’, ropin’, and ridin’ reflect an inauthentic outsider’s view, and Calvin, though a prodigal returned, shouldn’t be an outsider. It’s a subtle problem, but a real one because cowboy fascination is one of Calvin’s only distinct character traits. With the rest of his life sketched in, he only exists to want a fantasy that he should know to be false.
Compounding matters, Calvin’s cowboy isn’t actually a cowboy. Brock wears a hat and boots and drawls like a cartoon Texan, but in fact he’s a hot, drunken no-hoper with a failed contracting business doing zero to save himself. For reasons that start to seem like authorial sadism, Brock is hemmed in on all sides by things beyond his control: he’s broke in wallet and spirit, single parenting with no support, stuck in a dying town, orphaned and closeted and suffocating and alcoholic, but taking exactly no steps to fix/change/address the situation. HE even protests the unfairness of it. He is a cowboy-as-fantasy object, passive beyond belief. He is after all, so darn hot. At times, this book feels less like a romance than a slick executive paying for a sexy loser who resembles the fantasy hanging on his wall in NYC. So although I found Brock sexually appealing, I found him personally infuriating. In truth, Calvin’s arrival is the only thing that rescues Brock from complete paralysis and ruin; Brock never actually learns anything from his troubles; he merely escapes them through no efforts of his own. Here is where that juicy hook goes wrong.
So even though it features piercing moments of eroticism and tenderness, with the ending inevitable, a cardboard cowboy, and the gorgeous geek-made-good feeling flimsy, Calvin’s Cowboy has a hard time satisfying as a romantic fantasy. And like the limitless money Calvin spends so casually, the ending doesn’t feel earned. Since nothing has any real cost, nothing can have any real value.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression this isn’t a fun read. Hunt offers moments of wonderful invention: memorable minor characters and specified locations so real I felt like I could visit them. Brock’s son is easily the story’s most mature character, challenging everyone’s casual passivity and driving decisions that motor the entire plot. I especially loved the down-home restaurant in New York run by two men who were heroes. There’s a whole other marvelous book hinted at in these ideas. But these little gems abut plateaus of cliché and nontension. I wish Hunt had let these singular snippets expand and let some of that specificity and nuance splash over into the heroes. They have the makings of a wonderful couple, if only they had grown and changed by knowing each other. Again, I suspect that with some simple, central changes this would have been a much stronger book.
There’s an old expression about “urban cowboys” that they are “all hat and no horse,” a pose without power. With a lot less hat and even a little horse, Calvin’s Cowboy could have been a stunner. I was disappointed here, but I’ll always read Drew Hunt’s books. I only wish ths one had been a little more ready for the rodeo.