Believe it or not, Mark Probst's charming debut novel about a couple of gay cowboys who fall in love on a cross country cattle drive has a lot more in common with your dad's favorite Western novel than Brokeback Mountain.
And that's a good thing.
The world of the young shop clerk Ethan Keller and ranch hand Travis Cain is a vivid Technicolor creation that harkens back to the Western films of Hollywood's Golden Age. I've never been a fan of Westerns - in literature or films - but was pleasantly surprised at how quickly Probst's breezy style and likeable characters drew me in. The writing itself is sturdy, masculine and free of flourishes, making it perfectly suited to the genre. And while he tends to paint in broad strokes, the settings he describes - the general store, the boisterous saloon, a spinster schoolmarm's genteel parlor, the Rocky Mountain vistas - are all so iconic, it's impossible not to picture them perfectly in your mind.
The downright wholesome love story between the two main characters develops slowly with just enough tension to keep the reader turning pages in sweet anticipation of the inevitable. A refreshing change in this day and age when it seems most modern romances involve the couple falling into bed first, and love later. Both protagonists are well developed and complicated, particularly the adorable Ethan, an upright, bookish young man who struggles to understand his desire for Travis at a time when homosexuality was never spoken of. But it's with some of the secondary characters that Probst really shines. Miss Peet, the lonely school teacher who shares her love of books with Ethan and hopes to share her life with Travis, and Willie, Ethan's ne'er-do-well older brother, both take surprising, uncharacteristic, turns late in the story that prove them to be multi-dimensional real-to-life human beings.
The book is broken into three major sections - the first dealing with Ethan's life at home and the second chronicling the treacherous 900 mile cattle drive. I must admit I got the most pleasure from these. In part three, the story takes on a darker tone and the author injects a bit of Twenty First Century proselytizing that the book might've been better served without. Nonetheless let me just say, without giving away the ending, overall the story left me pleased and satisfied. And definitely eager for more from this budding talent.
If you're looking for a feel good gay romance, I highly recommend The Filly.
on April 12, 2009
This is a beautiful coming-of-age, learning-oneself story -- what a shame Amazon has seen fit to remove its ranking because it's classified as gay/lesbian fiction. Shame on Amazon! I'll direct my friends elsewhere to buy this book.
on March 20, 2008
I wish Amazon would let a reviewer use fractions! THE FILLY deserves better than 4 stars, but misses rating 5 by just a little. I'm giving it, as another reviewer did, 4.6 stars. ****+
Reading THE FILLY brought a wave of nostalgia. As a young person some of my favorite books and movies were Westerns. I read every horse story in our public library, and still remember whole scenes from My Friend Flicka, Smoky the Cowhorse, The Red Pony, and The Tiger Roan. I never missed the Western matinee movies on Saturday afternoon (two movies, newsreel, cartoon, superhero serial, singalong, and previews for twenty-five cents!). The film "Red River" made a huge and lasting impression on me; it was and still is one of the best. And, of course, as an adult I never missed an episode of "Rawhide" on tv.
Mark Probst's THE FILLY has a lot of things in common with Red River. They are both built around a cattle drive of hundreds of miles, they both have dust, raging storms, collapsing cattle, hardship, exhausted men, fights, threats, and death along the trail. Both "Red River" and THE FILLY have protagonists-- in this case two of them, Ethan and Travis--who are brave yet sensitive, not violent by nature but willing and able to fight when necessary. The big difference is in "Red River" Montgomery Clift and John Wayne beat the daylights out of each other, and in THE FILLY Ethan and Travis fall in love.
Seventeen-year-old Ethan is a dreamer and a bookworm who wants more than anything in the world to own his own horse, a filly he can raise and train. He has no sexual experience and is rocked by his inexplicable attraction to the new cowboy in town, 22-year-old Travis. Travis, on the other hand, is attracted to Ethan but he knows the score and decides to do something about it. He convinces Ethan to join the cattle drive. Over the months and the miles Ethan and Travis became friends long before they explore either their feelings or their physical need. They plan a future together on a horse ranch of their own. When the cattle drive ends and they have money in hand, they are free to begin their new life. Suddenly harsh reality and violence from an unexpected source stop them dead in their tracks.
Travis and Ethan are likable and sympathetic, and the author's descriptions, especially of the cattle drive, are vivid; you can almost taste the dust. The explicitness of the sex scenes in The Filly is just right for my taste, leaving most of it to the reader's imagination.
I have only two very small quibbles with the story. The first is that, for his age and the era, Travis seems a little too calmly self-understanding in his acceptance and explanation of his own homosexuality, and this gives a very slight feel of being off-kilter historically. The other relates to a startling time gap at the end, which I won't detail because it would be a spoiler. This is Mark Probst's first novel, and that's how writers learn.
Those two small quibbles aside, this is a book that could be given without a qualm to anyone open to a love story between men, but especially to a gay teen. The cover, incidentally, is very attractive and well done; you don't have to hide it from your granny.
I look forward to another book from this author... perhaps a sequel about Travis and Ethan? I can hope.
on January 9, 2008
I must admit that when I first saw this book advertised, I wanted to read it to see how this western compared to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. But even though both stories involved homophobia affecting the lives of two gay men, the writing styles are completely different and each author told their tale in unique and refreshing ways. Whereas Annie Proulx told her story in the short story format and the language was complex and full of literary imagery with so much implied rather than written down, Probst's style was simple language written in the novel format much in the same way
that Ernest Hemingway wrote. To compare Proulx to Probst would be like comparing Thomas Wolfe to Ernest Hemingway trying to decide which author is the best. It can't and shouldn't be done because they both should be read with their own unique writing styles in mind.
Mark Probst wins the reader over by creating two very likable main characters who both just happen to be male and who fall in love immediately as if they have been struck by lightning the second they first meet. I think the drawing card for each of them is that they are so different from each other. Ethan is younger (17) and is a sheltered bookworm who up to the point of their meeting has lived vicariously through the books he reads. Travis is older (22) and has already been away from home for several years and has been on several cattle drives already. We discover as the story unfolds that Travis has already had some sexual experiences with both females and males but what is missing in his life, is that one person that he can really love. He finds that in Ethan and he has to find a way to incorporate Ethan into his life on a daily basis so he convinces him to join the cattle drive to Wyoming.
The fact that Ethan and Travis are in love and not in lust with each other makes it quite acceptable that Probst doesn't include scenes of erotic love making between the two men. We're still able to read between the lines; often we can imagine far better scenarios than what might have been written down to titillate us. Just as the horror in Alfred Hitchcock's movies were achieved by letting us imagine what happened rather than showing us, Probst is more successful many times by leaving things out of his writing than if he had chosen to put them in.
The lesser characters in the book are as vividly drawn as the two main characters and not one character is superfluous to the plot. Probst brilliantly finds a way to include the stumbling block to the success of Ethan's and Travis' love and he is faithful and true to the time and place about which he is writing. He doesn't give us an easy and unrealistic conclusion yet he does give us a satisfactory one and the book is one from which all age groups and sexual orientations can read, enjoy, and learn.
on November 23, 2007
My title is the premise of this book by Mark R. Probst. It is about two young men, who meet, become friends and then become more than friends during a time in our history that doing so could mean certain death, the old west in the late 1800's. I found the book intriguing, easy to read, historical with adventure, and moments where you want to laugh and moments you want to cry. You can't help not to fall in love with Ethan, the shy 17 year old boy who lived a sheltered life with his mother and older brother and who read books for his entertainment, or with Travis the handsome cowboy who appears one day in the town's store where Ethan worked and and took an immediate liking for Ethan.
If you liked Brokeback Mountain then you will love The Filly perhaps even more. I highly recommend you getting yourself a copy and spending a quiet evening or weekend reading this book and although fiction, it will make you wonder what being gay in the old west was really like.
on November 10, 2007
I have never read a western novel. I have nothing against them. I just never had the urge. I am not a huge fan of American-style movie westerns either. Give me the dark, stylized Italian ones any day of the week. I also hated "Brokeback Mountain", which was the only thing I had ever encountered involving gay cowboys. That being the case, I started Mark R Probst's, debut novel, "The Filly", with minimal expectations. To my surprise, I found the book to be a charming, engrossing and thoroughly entertaining read.
The story in a nutshell: Handsome cowboy Travis, new in town, breezes into the general store where he encounters teenaged bookworm Ethan. Sparks fly. Travis finds work at the local ranch. Travis and Ethan become friends and Travis talks Ethan into signing onto a 900-mile cattle drive. En route, Ethan spies Travis bathing in the river and the sight of the water glistening off his lean, well-muscled frame makes the young man go all light-headed (as all the blood rushes from his head down into his quivering young loins). There's much more to the story of course, but it isn't very long so I don't want to give anything else away.
There are a few stock characters in the book (some of the other cowboys are fairly interchangeable, for example), but they all add to the rustic, "Zane Grey" feel of the book, so it's okay. As to the main characters, Travis and Ethan, they are both well-developed and highly likeable, and the evolution of their relationship is both touching and believable. Now, for those of you looking for a one-handed read, you won't find it here. What sex there is in the book is mostly implied, which makes it an ideal read for teens as well as adults.
Being an author myself, I quibble a bit with a few of the author's word choices, but none of those really interfered with my overall enjoyment of the book enough so that I feel they need to be mentioned here. All in all, "The Filly" is a great first novel. It grabbed me early and kept me wanting to turn the pages right up through to the end. I look forward to reading Mark Probst's future works.
- Pat Nelson Childs, author of Orphan's Quest
Rating first novels is a different assignment than rating novels by authors whose output allows comparison with a gamut of works: usually a five star rating denotes a major work of genius. But to encounter a work as simply beautiful as Mark R. Probst's THE FILLY makes such a positive impression (and a suggestion that this may be the opening work in a significant career) that it requires a heads-up to the audience. And so a five star rating for this book, for this reader, is justified. This is a work of courage on the part of subject matter, but it is also an example of clarity in writing and in technique that deserves applause.
Probst takes us back in time to 1878 and to the age of the Westerns so rhapsodized by the films of the 40s and 50s, western tales more interested in the grandeur of the frontier and the simple purity of the feelings of characters isolated from the more decadent big cities. With a keen eye for vocabulary and scene setting, Probst takes us to Texas and introduces us to a gentle, bookish lad named Ethan who supports his mother and older brother Willie (whose activities include drinking, whoring, and crime) by working in a store. Into this gentle time enters a handsome cowboy Travis, looking for a place to stay while he waits for the job of the summer - driving a herd of cattle to Colorado. Travis causes an unfamiliar response within Ethan, an emotional and sensual feeling that is as new as spring rain. Through a series of conversations and incidents, Travis convinces Ethan to accompany him on the cattle drive and Ethan makes his first break from his family to follow the mystery that he finds in Travis.
What follows is one of the most understated love stories on paper, and that is not to say that this novel fears commitment to gay love and expression of feelings physically: Probst writes with dignity and subtlety and in doing so he manages to weave a truly romantic novel instead of a story of descriptive lust. The two men fall in love and when the cattle drive is complete they return home to tell their families of their plans to move to the Rockies to raise horses. A surprise tragedy occurs, one that causes the ugly head of homophobia to threaten the story's end, but Probst guides the bonded couple through a perilous experience, assuring us that the sun always rises in good westerns.
The story may sound simplistic, but it is peppered with very well drawn secondary characters, each of whom plays a significant role in the story. There is no 'filler' here, no meaningless meandering through sidebars that squelch the momentum of the story. Probst writes beautifully and while some may criticize the Romantic approach of his writing, the poetry fits the melody - and the song is a fine one! THE FILLY is a strong novel by a fine writer and for a first work, this book will be a standard by which his certain subsequent novels will be judged. Grady Harp, December 07
"The Filly" is a tender, sweet-hearted cowboy romance. The author's love of the Old West is readily apparent throughout the story. I could practically taste the dust on the air, and hear the saloon doors squeaking. It's filled with small, well-researched details that place a reader firmly in the time period. Though westerns are not my cup of tea, the author's enthusiasm is contagious and I found a new appreciation for the subject. Ethan is an appealing character. Though I think his overall naïveté was a bit too much for the time he was living in (I think he would've been aware of the extreme prejudice, not to mention laws against, homosexuality), his youth and shyness endear him to the reader. Travis has more experience, but he is not so jaded that he doesn't enjoy life. Together, they are a great, likeable couple.
The romance is very slowly built, which I appreciated. Too often, characters fall in love in a couple paragraphs with no support for it. Not so here. Part one of the book is mostly about Ethan's life living with his mother and brother, and working in the general store. After meeting Travis, they decide to go on a cattle drive together. This is where the romance develops, though the pacing of the story remains constant. Travis helps Ethan learn the ways of being a cowboy and about hiding his nature for his own protection. Yet, despite the very real danger of being outed as a homosexual, Travis has a very optimistic nature. This drive is over three months long, and it is easy to believe the two would become close. So, when Travis and Ethan decide to go into business together and raise horses it fits the story just right. The cattle drive was my favorite, and I think the best written, part of the novel. The two men get to know each other, have conversation, swim together, etc. There is no explicit sex in "The Filly," but the men obviously have a physical relationship. The implied sex works much better for the nature of this romance than something more graphic. The reader gets glimpses into what it must have been like to travel 20 miles a day by horse, herding cows, crossing a desert without much water and sleeping for months in a tent. It was an intense experience, for them and for the reader. However, part three left me with mixed emotions.
The next paragraph (only) contains a slight SPOILER:
I try to avoid even small spoilers in my reviews but couldn't articulate my problem without revealing a bit of the story. Ethan goes to visit Travis' family before starting their new life. Rumors of their relationship surface, and Ethan ends up being brought to trial for a crime he didn't commit. Now, I was expecting something to happen to upset the romance and provide angst. However, what happened left me feeling unsettled. Despite the OBVIOUS lack of evidence, Ethan is convicted. Though this result is perfectly realistic, it didn't work for a romantic story - which this was up until these events. And, why would Ethan's lawyer choose a jury trial in such an obviously biased town? I knew right then he would be convicted (though I was truly hoping not!) Second, I felt like Travis put Ethan at risk all along. Not by starting the relationship, but by insisting they stay in a hotel instead of with his family and by not realizing that Ethan is young and vulnerable. He's supposed to be older and more experienced, but he left Ethan alone when he knew they were in danger. I won't go into more detail because I don't want to ruin it, but Travis' actions in the last third of the book made the character almost selfish. "The Filly" does have the prerequisite happy ending of a romance. However, having Ethan go to prison soured it somewhat - it was too much of a stretch for Ethan to literally walk out of prison into a happily ever after with Travis. I think the ending would've worked better (for me) if Ethan and Travis had had to spend months rebuilding their relationship, and Ethan healing from what must have been a horrifying experience in prison.
When I finished this novel right before I went to bed, I lay awake thinking about it for a very long time. The characters stayed with me. That is one of the best things I can say about any novel. Though the ending didn't sit quite right with me, the overall story was excellent, the romance well developed, and the writing top notch. So, I have no hesitation in recommending this to others. This was much more than a cookie-cutter romance.
on August 6, 2008
Wow, what a wonderful book! I'm a gay man who loves westerns and I had never known the two genres to be mixed. I'm sincerely happy I read this since it combines romance, adventure and the thrill of the western saga all into one, only the main characters are gay. It's been a long, long time since I felt like I was falling in love right along with the people I was reading about and I couldn't put "The Filly" down. Congrats to Mark, he's accomplished something very, very special!
The Filly is a realistically rough, but heartwarming coming of age story set in the 19th century American west. The plot is largely driven by the protagonist's slow realization that he is gay; as such this book is among sparse literary company. The book is mildly reminiscent of gay-themed pulp paperback novels from the 1960s through 1980s that feature western themes (such as the One to Share series by Dallas Kovar, the Cal Jardine series or the stand-alone book Rezo Strange) but with more coming-of-age substance and much less rolling in the hay. The Filly is more down to earth overall and features realistic choices and situations considering the main character's age, and the time and place of the novel's setting.
The plot is well thought out and neatly divided into three major parts. The author does an amazing job of character development for the primary character, Ethan. Ethan's sexuality becomes more integral to his character development and the plot as the narrative develops. This isn't simply a cookie-cutter western with some gay characters tossed in for novelty. There is good secondary character development, although the 22 year old Travis seems wise beyond his years. Travis sparkling character, however, is spot-on for establishing clear moral lines that separate the good guys from the bad guys, as would be expected in a western.
The book details the human story of life in the west, including driving cattle to market across the range, dealing with gambling, drinking and prostitution in town, and simple farm living as well. There are some non-traditional villains involved who come as surprises.
Overall The Filly is a solid read and remains true to the good-guys vs. bad-guys underpinnings of the western genre, despite its uncommon characters. This book deserves five stars for the solid execution on uncommon literary ground.