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One for the mules 

Finally, the superior beast gets his due.

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The forensic aspect of this tome is surely a superfluity. That is, those who are already mule enthusiasts need no convincing of the animal’s superiority in just about every respect over all other equines, livestock and modes of transportation past and present. And those who don’t appreciate the mule -- because of ignorance, old prejudice, just not giving a damn, or a flawed cultural aesthetic — aren’t going to be persuaded by tribute and testimonial, however plenitudinous or authoritative.

So all the astonishing and thrilling mule stories herein, illustrative of the mule’s superior intelligence, courage, steadfastness, soundness of judgment, soundness of constitution, character, stamina, climbing and jumping ability, and overall physique — in short, his physical and mental and moral and practical supremacy when compared with any of his beast-of-burden brethren, including horse, donkey, ox, llama, camel, cart-broken goat and sled dog — suffer for the lack of an imperative that might attract them a ponderable readership and finally give the poor mule, at least literarily, its due.

That is to say, making the case for mule superiority may be a worthy venture, centuries overdue, but anymore it just isn’t going to win you much of a reading audience.

There was a time when that case could have and should have been made. King David with his lute might have done it in a psalm, and John Rust might have dedicated his mechanical cottonpicker as a kind of mule-relevance epitaph. If just one of the Saturday matinee cowboy heroes could have ridden a mule, or even one of the hootier, the mule might have got his props, but stints as unnamed stereotypes enduring gol-darned dang-tootin’ harangues from Walter Brennan and Gabby Hays were not the ticket to mule cool. The mule needed a Fury or a Flicka, but about all the media he got was Francis the Talking Mule — a sort of Mr. Ed Sr. who bumpkined the image irremediably.

The time for romanticizing the mule ran out sometime in the middle of the preceding century. Harry Truman was the last public figure who could frankly admire the mule without concern that it would rub off, marking him as the kind of rube mule-lover who would crack corn on “Hee Haw.” When image got to be everything 50 years ago, the mule found itself on the wrong side of hip, of what then would have been called snazzy, abandoned and scorned as a symbol or icon for no good reason, and it hasn’t had the lobby or even the requisite want-to to mount a comeback. Mules give Madison Avenue the same air it has given them, and simply refuse to brood about how they stand with the trendsetters or fashion-followers. They keep their opinions about human folly to themselves, but you can tell by a quick physiognomical scan of just about any mule on the lot it’s not a high opinion.

Absent of genuine mule romance, then, “The Natural Superiority of Mules” also lacks any good mule lore. It doesn’t have very much of it, anyway. It does some useful debunking of such libels as the timeworn allegation of mule stubbornness — thought up by people who couldn’t bring themselves to admit that their mules were smarter than they were and by a considerable margin — but there’s neither much mule art (no famous mule whisperers have arisen, or anyhow made themselves known, for instance) nor mule science here to give the skeptics and the mulephobes food for thought. There is one brief veterinarian-sounding riff on the practical advantages that the mule derives from its big ears, and some pseudo-scientific rumination about how the hard hooves and better legs that the mule gets from its jackass sire makes it a much better racing animal than the catastrophe-prone thoroughbred with its brittle little cattail legs.

I mentioned a while ago the fine art of understanding mules, and a fine art it seems to be, too, but there’s another variety of mule art that seems to me the best feature of “The Natural Superiority of Mules.” That would be graphic art, gallery art. This is a picture book, primarily, and the penultimate section unveils just a swell collection of mule paintings, drawings, lithographs, artsy photos, sculptures and other renderings, the most dramatic of them by the great Western artists Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington but the most charming by mule-inspired lesser-knowns such as Bonnie Shields, an Idahoan who nonetheless signs her pictures, “B. Shields, the Tennessee Mule Artist,” and a perfectly delightful construction-paper collage of a mule and a cactus against a watercolor sunset over the Grand Canyon, this by an 11-year-old schoolchild named Taylor Flanders.

My guess is that there’s more to be learned about mules — and about lots of other things — by giving close attention to the details of these artworks, especially the historical narrative paintings, than you could glean from the text of this book, from all of B. Traven and Ambrose Bierce, and from a year’s subscription, say, to Mules and More, the indispensable mule-lovers’ monthly out of Bland, Mo., put together.

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