by Stewart ONan
For the novelist, as for any artist, the difficulty of taking on well-trodden territory is to overcome those past representations that the audience is 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, first novelist Andrew Huebner sets himself an almost impossible task, choosing that most-overworked of landscapes, the American West late in the US governments war against the Indians. His approach, while accomplished and pleasing in its application, may signal a new school of American writing and also serve as a kind of cautionary tale of its own.
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 authors 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 Bulls army, are just as striking. Through the pursuit, Bradley, 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--Custers 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 hes 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 cavalrys 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, Huebners 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:
Theyd 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 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.
Its 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 thirds usual full disclosure, here its a flat or dumb application of technique pretending it either doesnt have access to its characters inner lives or that those inner lives dont 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), were outside the characters, watching them from, say, ten feet away with a camera. In film its whats called an American shot, from medium distance, from the waist up. We dont know what theyre 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 were left with is a cool, adamantine surface formed of concrete detail and gesture, a throwback to Hemingways iceberg, except in this case theres nothing under the waterline.
Literary fiction writers usually choose a certain point of view and tone because those offer the best, sometimes the 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 and succeeded--in part--because it was new. What precisely the lack of reflexivity (or simple thought) signifies in McCarthys or Harufs or Huebners people is anyones 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. Its disproportionate. All this pretty scenery-gazing clogs up the page and brings us no closer to the characters fears or desires. It foregrounds the authors 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 theyre 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 McCarthys hallmark conceit of dropping the quotation marks:
Once again, Huebner, McCarthy, Haruf. The ping-pong dialogue gets the reader down the page as fast as JohnGrisham, and aspires to some kind of stoic folk wisdom, usually--as in Hemingway--about courage, but in most cases tells us little that is 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 Huebners 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 Huebners technique so obviously recalls McCarthys--just as Harufs 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 Carvers 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, Huebners line writing and eye serve him well. American By Blood is more eventful and finally deeper than All the Pretty Horses,and Huebner doesnt pour on the mock-Faulknerian rhetoric as McCarthy sometimes does. His execution of the book cant 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 thats the mark of a good writer.