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New Mexico Odyssey 

Western mythology revisited in The Sound of the Trees

The author Robert Gatewood, 28, looks about 19, carries a tattered backpack, wears worn jeans and a holey t-shirt and speaks about himself and his novel in a low, almost embarrassed tone.

The Sound of the Trees, Gatewood's first published novel, meanwhile, is stacking up reviews from publications like Publisher's Weekly, Book Sense and The Denver Post that call it "uncommonly good," "accomplished," "lyrical" and "engrossing." There are inevitable comparisons to Cormac McCarthy -- a punctuation thing, no quotation marks around the dialogue.

Gatewood, who bartends at Eske's in Taos when he's not working as a ranch hand or traveling around the country promoting his book, says the McCarthy-like punctuation was unintentional and just felt truer to the rhythm of the novel.

The Sound of the Trees is the mythical coming-of-age tale of Trude Mason, a New Mexico farm boy who rescues his mother from his abusive father, then sets out on horseback through the mountains for the far territory of Colorado. It's 1930 or so, the Depression, the spear of time jutting up between the Old West and the New West, when small towns popped up along railroad lines and the woods were still wild and largely unpopulated except for an occasional bear. On his journey, Trude confronts extreme terrain, both human and geographical, and finds that the struggle between self-preservation and conscience is tempered only by the graces of hope and humility.

It's not Gatewood's first novel. Following four years at the Jesuit College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, he set out for Colorado and did stints working in Steamboat Springs and Crested Butte. His first novel, written in Crested Butte, "was an absolute disaster," says Gatewood. "I was trying on different coats, different styles." Undeterred, the young author worked his way south to New Mexico, across the country to Mississippi and back, working all the time on The Sound of the Trees, in a darkened backyard shed, on a computer connected to the house's electricity by an extension cord.

"I've been thinking about it all my life," he says, referring to the wanderer in the Wild West theme and fixation on that period of time when "progress" first came to the Rocky Mountains.

The desire to become a writer, he says, first came to him as a teenager.

"The turning point was reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse in high school," he says. "Something in that book broke my heart in a way that I wanted it to be broken again. Then came Robert Frost, and the same thing happened again." (The title, The Sound of the Trees, comes from a Frost poem.)

When he was a kid, says Gatewood, he wanted to be a rodeo rider or a professional athlete, ambitions nursed by his parents who encouraged an outdoor, physical existence and brought their kids to a ranch in Steamboat Springs for summer vacations. The juxtaposition of old and new West rings throughout both Gatewood's work and his experiences as a drifting ranchhand in Colorado and New Mexico.

"I worked for an old cowboy in Tesuque," he says, "a 50-year-old alcoholic whose house was in disrepair. I repaired roofs there, everything falling down, and all around were Oprah Winfrey's house, Val Kilmer's house. It's like that down there."

The story's the thing, says Gatewood when asked why bother with a novel. "You want to spin a good yarn, to take 'em away."

"I love myth, allegory, parables," he says. Like his character Trude Mason, Robert Gatewood himself is something of a threadbare Western American Odysseus, in search of adventure and spinning one heck of a good yarn.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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