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Tom Groneberg, THE SECRET LIFE OF COWBOYSTom Gr. Scribner, $24 (257pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-3610-2

This book's jacket (of a cowboy and his shopping cart in a supermarket frozen-food aisle) perfectly sets the tone for its offbeat theme: an account of Groneberg's evolution from Chicago suburbs to Montana ranches. Graduating from college with a degree in English and rhetoric, Groneberg, who writes for Big Sky Journal, Out and Sports Afield, shuns a traditional career. He spots an ad in the Utne Reader: "Hard work with horses in a beautiful setting." Following up, Groneberg summers at a Colorado ranch and is hooked. He moves to Montana, "a place where you can stretch your eyeballs," viewing his new life as almost fictional: "I will tell you a story about a hapless English major, a hopeless dreamer who finds a job guiding trail rides in Colorado. He falls in love with the West and a horse and a girl. Later he finds work on a ranch in Montana. He drives an hour each way, labors for ten hours a day and earns $210 a week. He marries the girl. And later still, he becomes part owner and full-time manager of nearly 10,000 acres.... It is the story I tell myself." However, the story this buckaroo tells readers takes a darker turn. Groneberg attends rodeo school, but bronc bruises are minor compared to the trials of running a ranch, which triggers a knotted stomach, depression and psychiatric sessions. "I chased a dream and it kicked me in the teeth." Groneberg succeeds as cowboy and poet, tossing a saddle on his soul and riding into the shadows: "Night is gathering. I can smell the burning stars." Agent, Jane Dystel. (July)

Forecast:Barnes & Noble selected Groneberg's book for its Summer 2003 Discover Great New Writers Program. That distinction, along with positive reviews (fostered by Groneberg's connection to outdoor magazines), could corral readers who yearn to escape concrete for the heartland.