FOR THE NOVELIST, as for any artist, the difficulty of taking on well-trodden territory is to overcome those past representations readers are most familiar with, to either pointedly avoid or consciously reinterpret the existing iconography. Imagine trying to make a gangster film now, or writing a serious novel about Washington politics. The artist has to demystify or put a wicked spin on the material, make it new or do it better. In American By Blood ($23.00, Simon & Schuster, March 2000), first novelist Andrew Huebner sets himself an almost impossible task, choosing that most-overworked of landscapes, the American West late in the U.S. government’s war against the Indians.
The novel opens with a brutal set-piece, the discovery by cavalry scouts of the battlefield at Little Big Horn. As they wander through the devastation, three men in the party are singled out: Lieutenant Bradley, Private August Huebner (a fictionalized version of the author’s great-great-grandfather), and another odd and wild private ironically named Gentle. Huebner has imagined this world brilliantly, his concrete details strong and evocative:
A Bible had been ripped apart, pages strewn to the wind. They saw odd pages, stuck to bloody scalp-shed faces, floating in the hot breeze. Bradley tried to gather them up, got a pile together then stopped and threw them up in the air.
And the following chapters devoted to the slow search for Sitting Bull’s army are just as striking. Through the pursuit, Bradley and Huebner and Gentle test their courage and moral resolve against obstacles natural and manmade, playing for the most part unknowing roles in the larger drama of empire-building through genocide. The landscape is awesome, and much of the narrative is given over to descriptions of the beautiful and tedious process of riding out across oversized sets in hopes of finding an elusive, unpredictable enemy.
Huebner is also fine in describing war, alternating periods of absolute boredom with moments of gibbering terror. The opening section–Custer’s men literally torn to pieces–lends a palpable dread to those moments when Private Huebner, an amateur naturalist, sways along in his saddle, naming wildflowers.
The action is episodic, battles followed by lulls followed by patrols, a new ambush, a retreat, a raid, and the storyline naturally wanders in the middle sections of the book, following as it does the scouts’ unsteady progress. Bradley, deeply affected by the carnage he’s seen, falls in love with a Sioux woman. Gentle goes quietly AWOL, runs off on his own confused crusade, leaving Bradley and the dutiful Huebner to the cavalry’s misbegotten war on Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.
The line writing is near flawless throughout, a triumph. And yet, in their terse, sensual poetry, in the way they describe men in a violent and awesome world without delving deeply into character, Huebner’s sentences (and attitude) are too familiar. Like Kent Haruf in Plainsong, the author comes close to mimicking the Cormac McCarthy of All the Pretty Horses. Compare the following excerpts:
They’d just rode around the great wide open land folding on to the distant mountains to the south. They pulled up in a dry water wash with cottonwoods hanging down to the sandy dirt, spent the night in the wild country out beyond the river. Pretty grasslands, hot, stark sandstone shelves, cut trails over the high plains; they had it all to themselves.
The bloodred dust blew down out of the sun. He touched the horse with his heels and rode on. He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west across the evening land and the small desert birds flew chittering among the dry bracken and horse and rider and horse passed on and their long shadows passed in tandem like the shadow of a single being.
Often in the mornings they rode out along the tracks on Easter and took their lunch and once rode as far as the little cemetery halfway to Norka where there was a stand of cottonwood trees with their leaves washing and turning in the wind, and they ate a lunch there in the freckled shade of the trees and came back in the late afternoon with the sun sliding down behind them, making a single shadow of them and the horse together, the shadow out in front like a thin dark antic precursor of what they were about to become.
The first is Huebner, the second McCarthy, and the third, with its final hiccup of undigested Faulkner, Haruf. In each, a third person point of view follows a character or characters through an empty Western landscape, stressing sensory imagery and rarely if ever attempting to limn the characters’ inner lives. This is true for much of the three books, and, as a method, quickly becomes cloying.
It’s an odd and somewhat singular use of the third person point of view, which typically aims to deliver far more than these simple exteriors. Instead of third’s usual full disclosure, here it’s a flat or dumb application of technique pretending it either doesn’t have access to its characters’ inner lives or that those inner lives don’t exist (or are less significant than landscape). In terms of psychic distance (how deep into or distant the reader is from the character, with stream of consciousness interior monologue taking us the furthest in), we’re outside the characters, watching them from, say, ten feet away with a camera. In film it’s what’s called an American shot, from medium distance, from the waist up. We don’t know what they’re thinking; we only see what they see, and not particularly through their eyes either, but through the supposedly invisible narrator, who, in this case, refuses to plumb the secret hearts of his people. Instead, what we’re left with is a cool, adamantine surface formed of concrete detail and gesture, a throwback to Hemingway’s iceberg, except in this case there’s nothing under the waterline.
Literary fiction writers usually choose a certain point of view and tone because those offer the best and sometimes only way to investigate the singular inner lives of their characters. For Nick Adams, numb from the war, his emotional world leveled, communion with the world of others unbearable, Hemingway correctly chose an opaque and externalized style which also succeeded–in part–because it was new. What precisely the lack of reflexivity (or simple thought) signifies in McCarthy’s or Haruf’s or Huebner’s people is anyone’s guess. Nobility? Stoic acceptance? Unselfconsciousness? But these are the worst penny-dreadful clichés of the Western Soul, riffs even Clint Eastwood tired of and chopped into bebop in Unforgiven.
In terms of craft, the new Big Two-Hearted minimalism is uneconomical; it uses more to express less. It’s disproportionate. All this pretty scenery-gazing just clogs up the page and brings us no closer to the characters’ fears or desires. It foregrounds the author’s talents in one small area, but surface technique–the easiest skill to master–is no substitute for real complexity. As if to address this book-long problem in one fell swoop, Haruf and more often McCarthy occasionally stop the dumbshow and drop into an overheated Faulknerian yawp, delivering the eternal verities from some literary Olympus, but at the high price of noticeably breaking tone. In asking readers to feel more for blank or undelineated characters than they themselves have provided, these authors are guilty not only of frigidity and mannerism but sentimentality and melodrama–a danger they must think they’re avoiding by steering clear of any but the simplest emotion.
Likewise, the approach to dialogue in the three books is shockingly similar, even down to McCarthy’s hallmark conceit of dropping the quotation marks:
- You think it’s ever going to be over?
It’s got to.
Want to flip for it?
They turned around. Hey, Baker, what’s the matter?
Just thought I’d pray, sir.
Let me know when you’re ready.
All right, let’s walk with the horses.
We’ll just have a little look-a-see, right, Cap’n?
You ain’t skeered is ya, Baker?
Give him a break, Gus.
And get us killed. That’s one thing Gentle was good fer.
Baker, Bradley said. Look we’re all scared.
Hell yes. It don’t never stop.
You ever think about dyin?
Yeah. Some. You?
Yeah. Some. You think there’s a heaven?
Yeah. Dont you?
I dont know. Yeah. Maybe. You think you can believe in heaven if you dont believe in hell?
I guess you can believe what you want to.
Rawlins nodded. You think about all the stuff that can happen to you, he said. There aint no end to it.
But listen to me, she said.
You don’t actually think I’m scary, do you?
Yeah, I do.
Tell me the truth. I’m serious now.
That is the truth. At times I can’t say I know what to make of you.
What do you mean? Why not?
Because you’re different than everybody else, he said. You don’t seem to ever get defeated or scared by life. You stay clear in yourself, no matter what.
Once again, Huebner, McCarthy, Haruf. The ping-pong dialogue gets the reader down the page as fast as John Grisham, and aspires to some kind of stoic folk wisdom, usually–as in Hemingway–about courage, but in most cases tells us little that’s new. Typical exchanges are more chat than conversation, and, rather than coming off as spare (which this style has often been mistakenly called), seem needless, except perhaps to dilute the large chunks of narrative closely rendered for no apparent reason (He turned from the horse with the reins in his left hand, the shifting wind in the cottonwoods on the knoll above, its sere leaves just now shot through and spangled with the tarnished light of late day, etc.).
So if Huebner’s choice of subject and setting posed a challenge, his style in American By Blood poses an even greater one. By aping–consciously or not–the later Cormac McCarthy, he sets his novel up against The Border Trilogy. It would be unfair to hang a general discussion of this weight on a first novelist, and to give other, more widely known writers so much space in a review of his debut, except that Huebner’s technique so obviously recalls McCarthy’s–just as Haruf’s did–and is at times so brilliant that it wins over even a reader who sees its roots. Taken together, the three form an odd and, I think, remarkable trend, the establishment, on a small scale, of a new formal convention. And it may be, like Carver’s take on Hemingway, one that attracts imitators good and bad. Will its mannerisms be used as tools to examine otherwise unplumbed lives or just to produce knock-offs, fodder for the magazines and publishing houses? Are we possibly in for five or ten years of it?
All that said, Huebner’s line writing and eye serve him well, and American By Blood is more eventful and finally deeper than All the Pretty Horses, and Huebner doesn’t pour on the mock-Faulknerian rhetoric as McCarthy sometimes does. His execution of the book can’t be faulted, only his conception of it. As the novel drives to its conclusion, the author delivers characters that, while only skin deep moment-to-moment, are in the end emblematic of the Soldier coming through War. Huebner succeeds in spite of his choices, and perhaps that’s the mark of a good writer.