Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5
Bull rider Cody Grainger and bullfighter Johnny Arrow have been in love for two years and traveling together on the circuit for less. The relationship is one that Cody’s parents approve of and the rodeo world has little knowledge of. A time of change is coming for both men, something neither of them want to acknowledge. For Cody Grainger, the future means retirement. Cody is at the top of the ratings and hopes to win the first back to back World Champion Bull Rider titles, but his body feels every inch his thirty years plus the wear and tear of riding bulls is making it harder for his body to take the abuse doled out by the bulls. Cody doesn’t just want to win, he needs to win and he refuses to see that his time as a bull rider is coming to an end.
Johnny Arrow is much younger than Cody and just starting out in his career as a bullfighter. His chosen profession means as much to him as bullriding does to Cody but Johnny just can’t seem to get that idea into Cody’s head. Frustration and unhappiness grows between the men and when the lack of communication is combined with the stress of the chase of the world title, their relationship breaks apart and Johnny leaves to pursue his profession on the summer circuit. With Johnny gone and Cody in denial about the cause of their breakup, Cody’s career takes a downward spiral he is unable to break. Both men soon realize they need to be together, but pride is a tough obstacle to get through. So is Cody’s outlook on Johnny and his career. Can both men compromise enough to let their love pull them through or will pride and denial cost them the love of their lives?
Catt Ford knows the world of bull riding from every exciting aspect, from the athleticism of the bulls themselves to the bullfighters who risk life and limb to protect the bull riders after their rides are done. Ford’s familiarity and her vivid descriptions of the sport make this book for me. I love the rodeo and Ford captures all the details from the danger of the chute to the politics and marketing strategy of the stock contractors and folds them effortlessly into her story. The author even gives the reader an introductory Bullriding 101 that works in its brevity and simplicity and helps the reader unfamiliar with the subject to better understand the terms and specifics of the sport. I normally am not a fan of this book dictionary idea but it works beautifully here and adds to the readers enjoyment instead of befuddlement.
Catt Ford’s descriptions really bring you into the world of bullriding. Instead of feeling like you are watching the events happen from a distance, say on cable, she makes you feel the events are happening around you, as though you are sitting in the stands, the dust of the arena in the air and the sounds of clanging gates and the explosive grunts of the bulls ringing in your ears. This is how the book opens, with Cody on the back of a bull and the chute gate getting ready to open:
IT ALWAYS started this way. He could feel his heart speed up, the insistent pounding in his chest, the steel rail cold under his hand, the restless beast throbbing between his legs, the tightness of the wrap around his hand. He gave the nod.
When the gate opened, the bull exploded out of the chute, bucking and twisting high in the air. Time slowed down for him as the rush of adrenaline shot through his body. It made him feel weightless yet powerful. Energized but floating on air. This was going to be a good ride. He was in the zone, shifting his body expertly, just enough to counter each move the bull threw at him, finding the perfect center of balance. The bull’s rage shivered up his spine, but it didn’t make a dent in his determination to win. He could almost hear the ticking as each hundredth of a second counted down.
His timing was perfect. He was so concentrated on his ride he couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd or the buzzer when it came. His internal clock told him once again he was the victor in the ageless contest between man and beast.
And it gets better from there. You feel the pain from old and new injuries adding up, the young riders pushing to get ahead and the love of bull riding that doesn’t diminish even while the body is telling the rider it is time to quit. Marvelous, realistic, glorious and sometimes quite sad.
It is Catt Ford’s characters and storyline that I had some issues with. Johnny Arrow is clearly my favorite of the main characters. He is young, ambitious and supporting a family on the reservation. Yet he is also inexperienced when it comes to men and insecure enough about his relationship with Cody not to speak up for his own needs. Johnny’s growth as a professional bullfighter and more importantly as his own person is charted throughout the story. It is well done and absolutely necessary to maintain his realism as a character. He experiments with sexual encounters with a diverse sampling of gay men helps define who he is although some readers will have problems with this aspect of the book. Both Johnny and Cody have sex with others but the reader needs to keep in mind that the couple is broken up and therefore not cheating on each other. It is a realistic facet of their lives and helps with each characters growth.
And while Johnny is my favorite character, Cody is my least. It probably doesn’t help that we see only a little of their relationship before the argument that breaks them up. The Bullheaded of the title clearly speaks to Cody’s mental state as well as profession. He rides roughshod over Johnny and pretty much everyone else throughout most of the book and doesn’t experience nearly the amount of growth Johnny does or that Cody needs to. In fact, they are separated for almost too much of the story and for me, it doesn’t really begin to gel until they meet back up again and try to work things out. For far too much of the story, Cody is just that much of an unlikeable person. He is understandable in his desperation to stay on top and we get the stress he is under from all sides to retire and while we can relate to him we don’t necessarily like him. And that hurts the story from my perspective.
It took me a while to commit to the relationship between Cody and Johnny. What pulled me through until I connected with them was Catt Ford’s immersion of the reader into her love of the bull riding universe. I will let Cody speak for himself:
The physical and mental challenge to stay aboard and the ecstasy of conquest rushed through him, electrifying his body. It felt like more excitement than his body could contain, as if he might explode with the insane joy of it any moment.
Catt Ford gets bull riding and makes the reader understand why. For that reason alone, you should pick up this book and let the bulls and their riders come alive before you. It is an amazing journey and one you will enjoy.
Cover art by Catt Ford. Unusual cover gets your attention immediately and works for the story within.