by Jane and Michael Stern
Can there be a soul so calloused by modern life that he or she doesn’t thrill to the sight of a magnificent palomino rearing up, to the sorrowful sound of a lonesome cowboy song, or to the inviting smell of bacon sizzling in a skillet over the morning camp-fire?” Well, maybe, but not by the name of Jane or Michael Stern. The Sterns are American pop culture vultures who always bring an air of unbridled zest to their books, which have included Roadfood, Elvis World and, more recently, The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste.
In Way Out West, their 18th volume, the Sterns happily hit the trail again, this time roping readers into big-sky country and points south with their eye-popping illustrations, goofy photos, witty text and quirky observations. A chapter on cowboy sidekicks, for example, divides the species into grizzled cranks (Gabby Hayes), men of girth (Andy Devine), strangely behaved ethnics (Tonto) and the physically challenged (Zorro’s mute manservant, Bernardo).
There are sections on how to ride, rope, dress, dance and sing like a cowboy or cowgirl. (If you are going to dress and dance like a cowboy, you should wear pointy boots, a big belt buckle and a loud, tight shirt with pearl snap buttons. Also, keep your fancy footwork below the belt: “Above the belt line, a cowboy always maintains his purposeful, masculine demeanor.”
In a chapter on equine superstars, the Sterns visit Gene Autry’s Champion—the World’s Wonder Horse—and Roy Rogers’s beloved Trigger (he is not stuffed, he is mounted, meaning his hide is stretched over an armature). And, as they hop along the highway past ghost towns, trading posts and signs that shout “Howdy!” the Sterns tell us where to eat (barbecue in Texas, hot chile in New Mexico, tacos in Arizona). sleep and shop in this fastidiously researched and affectionately rendered work. If you feel inspired to go West with the Sterns as your guide, just remember: You can cuss all you want…but only around men, horses and cows. And fer gosh sakes, never try on another man’s cowboy hat. (HarperCollins, $35)