Duck, a cattle herder in a poor, isolated region of Chilean Patagonia, is in the midst of one his frequent drunken episodes. And he has a knife to the throat of his American friend, author Nick Reding."Why you here?" Duck asks."The road," answers Reding, who has been chronicling the life of Duck and his family for his book The Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia. The incident lies at the heart of this beautifully novelized nonfiction work about the culture of Chilean cowboys, or gauchos, and their kin - a cattle - herding, hard - living bunch that includes the alcoholic Duck and his angry wife Edith, who believes her violent husband is possessed by the devil. The road to which Reding refers is the Careterra Austral, or the Southern Highway, a leg of the Pan American Highway, which runs through the United States, Central America and South America. The road for the first time forces interaction between the gauchos, whose lives have changed little since the 18th century, and the modern world that begins with the city of Coyaique, where the 21st century has definitely arrived.Serving as reporter, novelist and anthropologist, Reding presents the gauchos through keen observation and linguistic investigation. We learn, for example, the origins of the word "gaucho," most likely derived from huacho or guache, which means "orphan" in several Indian languages.The reader accompanies Duck and Reding on cattle drives and visits to distant neighbors. Meanwhile, the author weaves into his narrative the figurative language of fiction, relaying several of the gauchos' mysterious, magical myths - stories that somehow arise from the austere reality of their daily lives.During the year he spends with Duck, Reding learns of the cowboy's hopes for a better life in Coyaique - a desire that leads the family to the slums of that city, where the book comes to its sad conclusion.Reding renders the Patagonian landscape in wonderful detail. The end of the world may seem like a long way to go for a story, but the trip was more than worth Reding's - and the reader's - while.
Dave Bryan is a writer in Montgomery, Alabama.