by Ron Koertge
Published: 1988, 2005
Guys, I'm so excited. This is the first time I get to review a book for this blog in which I get to mention sex, drugs, cursing, alcohol, underage drinking, and gambling! It's like everything our beloved Thoroughbred characters would shrink from in horror while screaming "Unclean! Unclean!" This is precisely why I loved it. I mean, sure, I have a huge soft spot in my heart for our darling girls with their emotionally and physically stunted mindsets, but you can only take so much, you know?
From the moment sixteen-year-old Billy steps off the train in Tucson, he knows this will be a summer unlike any he's seen in small-town Bradleyville, Missouri. For starters, he's staying with his cool gay uncle, who has managed to get him a job at the racetrack caring for horses. Still, Billy doesn't expect the horseracing world to be quite as rough and tumble as this — toiling side by side with a macho survivalist and falling hard for the feisty, romance-shy "exercise girl" Cara Mae. With his trademark fast-paced dialogue filled with wit and compassion, Ron Koertge tells the tale of an insecure teen who discovers that gaining stature involves more than Stetsons and boots — and that lessons on love and manhood come from the places you least expect.We've also got a few other firsts thrown in for this blog -- the first male author, the first openly homosexual character, and the first instance of first person narrative. All of which is wildly refreshing. I am positively overflowing with giddiness brought on by new experiences!
Anyhoo, I'll just settle down and get to the book. I've included that The Arizona Kid was first written in 1988, but since it was republished in 2005 certain popular icons were clearly edited out and replaced with more current icons like the Dixie Chicks and Shaq. Who knows what was there previously. Probably Cyndi Lauper and Wilt Chamberlain. The only way you can seriously tell it was written in the late 80's is how the AIDS virus is treated during the entire novel. When AIDS popped up on the screen in 1981 I was an infant, but by the time the freaking out was at a high point I was old enough to remember and get the lectures on how you can and cannot contract HIV. Sitting on toilet seats that were subject to the grime of the general public? Dandy! Spitting on people for no reason? Totally not okay! (Although you'd think spitting would be discouraged in general, my era had to make HIV as easy to contract as Mono, so the message of politeness = not spitting on someone had a more urgent message attached.)
HIV/AIDS is the hot topic of this book mainly because our main character, Billy, is staying with his uncle Wes, who is gay and happens to be going through the emotional turmoil of watching his friends die and attempt to not die from the illness. We'll get to that later. First, to Billy and his problems, which mainly boil down to the fact that he's short and unsure of what he wants to do with himself and a virgin. His parents have him trucked off to Tuscon for the summer, and his uncle Wes has set up a job for him at the local racetrack. Billy thinks he might want to be a vet, hence the racetrack job. Anyway, Billy is kind of awkward starting out and is pretty self-conscious about his height. He even wears vertically striped shirts in an attempt to look taller, which fails time and time again.
Wes is pretty awesome. He's one of those perfect guys that gets hit on by everyone, is apparently a neat freak despite being an artist (perhaps it's just my experience, but artists are never neat freaks), and gets about 80% of the fantastic lines in the book. He knows this Jack guy from his business and sets up Billy's job as one of Jack's grooms. This leads us to the racetrack, where we meet Lew, his girlfriend Abby, and Cara Mae, one of Jack's exercise riders. Lew is one of those guys who thinks World War III is going to break out at any minute, and is totally prepared for the apocalypse at the drop of a hat. His mother is essentially permanently stoned, and his father is insane. No, really. Lew's dad, Edgar, has the astonishing ability to drop down from the ceiling unannounced, start screaming military terminology at the top of his lungs, and then starts to shoot random objects with blanks from his machine gun. I kid you not. Edgar is reason enough to read the book.
Anyway, Billy meets Cara Mae and his teenage boy hormones kick in full force. They sort of get together during night races at the track, where he's helping out with this filly called Moon's Medicine. After the filly loses tremendously, they go out and get some beer and park somewhere. While Lew and Abby basically have sex in the front cab of the truck, Billy and Cara wander off somewhere and get acquainted in a lovely platonic way that ends Billy back at home with his uncle giving him condoms. Best to be prepared! And all that. Wes also gives Billy these boots he doesn't wear (Wes went through some shopping addiction that left him with multitudes of things he doesn't use, all for fear he will get AIDS and die) and Billy buys a Stetson and basically builds his cocoon while he waits to emerge as a fully grown adult male.
Luckily for Billy, it's basically hot as hell in Tuscon, and he offers to take Cara to the water park in the city. Cara is not financially well off, and her swim suit is a little stretched out, offering Billy all sorts of opportunities to develop erections he can be embarrassed by. Somehow he manages to hide all of this and lays the foundation for his relationship with Cara. Meanwhile, Moon's Medicine does much better in her next night race because she's developed a loving relationship with a chicken. Only after the race the resident antagonist, enemy trainer Fletcher, comes and takes her away to his barn because her owners are pricks and jumped ship. This results in a wonderful physical confrontation between Lew, Billy, and Fletcher's muscle named Grif. Grif basically wins, they take the filly, and Cara gets all attentive to Billy. Which equals sex. So Billy gets to put those condoms to use and starts to break out of his cocoon.
Then Moon's Medicine dies. This spins into motion our second half of the book, which pits Fletcher and Grif against Lew and Billy in this plot that seems to come straight out of The Sweet Running Filly and its sequels (that I have not read yet, but this would be right in there, I am sure). Pissed off that he's being blamed for Moon's death, Fletcher gets all confrontational with Lew and Billy, which winds up with them betting on these two new horses. Jack is getting a maiden filly named The Dark Mirage and Fletcher is getting a filly named French Bred (ha ha). So, Lew basically gets them into this stupid bet about which horse will win and there's a thousand dollars at stake. The Dark Mirage is sort of crazy, requiring lots of attention and, as it turns out, watermelon. I don't understand the watermelon, but I guess it's her comfort food or something. Only it doesn't really work well because Billy and Cara just wind up taking her out to this private training facility so she can work in peace.
Meanwhile, Wes is going through the death of one of his friends, gets all drunk, and then has to be tested again for some reason and goes to a gay bar and, you know, Billy takes this all in stride before one of Wes's flamboyant friends hits on him in a most amusing fashion. Which I will now briefly transcribe:
"Who is this macho morsel?"It's sort of like a Pepe Le Pew cartoon.
"I live here."
"This isn't an outfit, is it?" (Strokes Billy's sleeve.) "You've been -- pardon the expression -- working."
"Look, all I want to do is go to bed, okay?"
"Stop handling me, man. I mean it!"
"I love it when they're stern."
Anyway, then we've got some drama about having to go home in the midst of all this bet business. Billy is angsting over telling Cara he loves her and vice versa, resulting in dramatics and a fight that they get over while he guards The Dark Mirage from any nefarious deeds. Although then Fletcher and Grif show up, totally unprepared for whatever they were going to do. This is probably because Fletcher is drunk. They basically yell a little, Grif manages to get Fletcher back to their truck, and then Cara and Billy have sex in a stall.
The Dark Mirage beats French Bred in their race (although I don't think she wins the race overall), Billy and Cara manage to bring their relationship to a suitable end that may or may not continue past the summer (I mean, come on, they're teenagers, and the book realizes that), Billy decides to come back to the University of Arizona for racetrack management after high school, Cara goes up to Phoenix for another race meet with her dad, and Billy goes home a man.
It is remarkably satisfying, although the very end is sort of plunked down there and feels unexpectedly sudden. Billy is a sweet kid, and his story is pretty amusing. I was a little disappointed in the plot twist halfway through with this bet and how Jack just sort of let Billy and Cara deal with The Dark Mirage. It was like a tarnished Thoroughbred plot, to a certain extent. However, I would still happily recommend the book to anyone.