Boleto: A Novel

  • Alyson Hagy
  • Graywolf
  • 288 pp.

A novel set in the New West, where the right horse can be a trainer’s ticket or “boleto” to a better life.

Reviewed by Fred Haefele

Alyson Hagy’s exploration of the relationship between man and horse in her splendid new novel Boleto achieves an intimacy rarely encountered even in books about men and women. Will Testerman, a young Wyoming cowboy who hopes to make his mark as a trainer, bestows on the charismatic bay filly he calls “Tick” a depth of care and instinctual direction that seems beyond training. It’s as if the two engage in some ancient conversation on the nature of blood and spirit.

The book opens when the 23-year-old Will buys Tick from a rancher he’s worked for in the past. The older man can’t appreciate it, but Will sees something in the filly that promises passage away from his home in the Absarokee Mountains and into the great world beyond. Raised on a family ranch tipped towards decline, Will grows up tough, able and resourceful. He plays six-man football for Lost Cabin High and skirmishes with his truculent, low-balling dad and a pair of bemused older brothers.

By the time he buys Tick, Will has survived the loss of the two women he loved, one to the wilderness, one to another man. In the meantime, he’s been a groom for a hot-tempered Texas millionaire and wrangled horses for dude ranches, outfitters, back-country hunters and assorted prima donnas. He is torn between the need to break out on his own and an abiding concern for his schoolteacher mother, who has undergone chemotherapy but shows signs of relapsing. Uncomplaining, Will picks up the caregiver slack for his non-demonstrative family but, in the end, his mother refuses to let him put his life on hold for her. In an effective stroke, Hagy renders dialogue throughout the novel with minimal punctuation, and the conversations between Will and his mother, poignant and scrupulously unsentimental, are among the most moving in the book:

He knew his mother. She was a schemer, in her way. She was trying to tell him something. Ma? Yes. Is the cancer back? Is that what’s eating at dad all the time? No … The damn cancer is not the issue … You’re getting out of here. You’re not changing another thing in your life because of the cancer. Let it change me, please. It’s mine.
The trail ahead is full of adventure for Will and Tick. At the invitation of a charmingly ruthless Argentinean horse baron, Will makes his big move, ships Tick on ahead to Anaheim, climbs in the decaying Cadillac he won from a hapless corral boss named Kenny, and hits the glitter path to the exotic and brittle high stakes world of the Southern California polo scene. Along the way, we encounter a marvelous cast of horse people: shippers, farriers, vets, traders, hapless dudes, disgruntled camp cooks, an especially trashy casino hook-up, one venomous ranch boss and a tribe of feral stable boys, escaped from the streets of Buenos Aires. The entire cast is meticulously drawn; there’s not a throwaway in the lot.

In the final section, the pace quickens and the tension spools out effortlessly. Hagy’s description of the U.S. Mountain West is superb: “The sun was up. It cast a basking light across his father’s fields. The swallows that lived in the open eaves of the barn were going about their labors, flitting to and from the bowls of mud and spit that were their new nests.” Additionally, Hagy’s unfailing ear for cowboy idiom keeps Boleto fresh and alive, as in this exchange between Will and Kenny, the washed-up head wrangler:

She’s a handsome animal, Kenny said. I look at her and I think I’m looking at a hip number from the National Stock Show … But she’s no deeper than a pie pan. You know that, don’t you? Will pretended not to hear the provocation. I’ve seen a lot of horses, Kenny said. I’ve trained them and rode them and sold them up and down the Rockies — I don’t think you’ve been in Wyoming but about ten years, Will said, interrupting. I been here my whole life. You don’t need to talk to me like I’m deaf.
And, of all the fine moments in Boleto, the most memorable is Will’s mother’s description of a dream:
I never thought of a tall man in a suit. He didn’t stay in the doorway long, and his eyes … were the deepest spaces I’ve ever looked into, though they were in no way cruel or sad. He wasn’t lit up in glory, either. He just looked professional, in a comfortable way. An angel — who would have thought I would ever see one of those?
From a writer of lesser skill, Boleto might have ended up a more conventional coming-of-age story. Instead, Hagy has infused it with the kind of depth, beauty and insight that makes it truly unforgettable.

Fred Haefele’s writings have appeared in Epoch, Missouri Review, Prism International, Outside, the New York Times Magazine,, Wired, Big Sky Journal, Newsday, American Heritage and others. He is the author of the award-winning memoir Rebuilding the Indian and the recently published Extremeophilia. Visit his website at

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