Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Published 1947 chapter 4 set in the late 1930s
‘I hear you’ve been in Texas. Have you become a drugstore cowboy?’
Hugh replaced his ten-gallon Stetson on the back of his head, laughing down, embarrassed, at his high-heeled boots, the too-tight trousers tucked inside them. ‘They impounded my clothes at the border. I meant to buy some new ones in the City but somehow never got around to it… You look awfully well!’
He began to button his shirt, which was open to the waist, revealing, above the two belts, the skin more black than brown with sun; he patted the bandolier below his lower belt, which slanted diagonally to the holster resting on his hip-bone and attached to his right leg by a flat leather thong, patted the thong (he was secretly enormously proud of his whole outfit), then the breast pocket of his shirt, where he found a loose rolled cigarette…
observations: There are plenty of great books that we would love to feature on the Clothes in Book blog, but sometimes it is annoyingly difficult to find some suitable excerpt, or else a description of clothes turns out to be completely undetailed, or wrongly-remembered. Under the Volcano unexpectedly gave the opposite experience: it is a favourite book, re-read several times over the years, but we had absolutely no memory of the fact that one of the central group of urbane expats (in Mexico) spends most of the book in cowboy clothes, a very strange touch. Hugh is the brother of Geoffrey Firmin, the Consul who is the main character. Hugh also had an affair with Geoffrey’s wife Yvonne in the past, and it is she who is greeting him.
Hugh is a strange helpless character – he feels he should be fighting in the Spanish Civil War, so perhaps the manly outfit is some compensation. Under the Volcano is semi-autobiographical, and is always on the verge of falling into self-pitying narcissism but somehow pulls back. It could have been written to show the failure of the people surrounding Firmin - they are highly imperfect, perhaps betray him, and cannot save him. But in fact all the characters seem to be part of Lowry, and he is clear-eyed but very forgiving of all of them, which saves the book (but is a bit narcisstic.)
'Drugstore cowboy' sounds like a much more modern phrase (there is a 1989 film of that name, with the emphasis on 'drug'), but apparently dates to the 1920s to mean someone who dresses as a cowboy but has never worked as one.
Links up with: Under the Volcano featured in the Day of the Dead entry. Brothers’ rivalry features here, and Lord Peter Wimsey is faced with trying to save his brother or his sister here.
The picture is from the New York Public Library.