By Robert Olmstead
304 pp. Algonquin. $26.95.
Robert Olmstead’s seventh novel is set in the reddening dusk of 1870s Indian Territory, where lives were often unmoored by any strictures of civilization, but the “Savage Country” of its title might equally refer to the human heart at large, with its alternating impulses of ambition and cruelty, humanity and inhumanity.
The plot is simple enough. A woman, Elizabeth, loses her debt-ridden husband to an errant horse hoof. His black-sheep brother, Michael — haunted by an unnamed tragedy we infer is romantic in nature — leaves a big-game hunting gig in Africa to help clear his brother’s accounts out West. The only way is to kill buffalo, and lots of them. The story that ensues is told from ground level, with dust rising, yet the moral vantage is from 30,000 feet as history stumbles forward with lust and ignorance. Rest assured, the view is not pretty.
After a while, a reader realizes he is holding his breath, craving a reprieve from the relentless grimness. Rarely is there any. Peace is found in only a handful of scenes — usually at dusk, by a creek, catching a fish or shooting a bird: hunter-gathering as opposed to mass slaughter, although even at such moments overabundance still plays a role. At one point, so many turkeys roost above a waiting hunter that the trees’ limbs cannot support their weight, and the branches crack and snap; the hunter shoots as many as he can carry.
In the meantime Elizabeth and Michael manage a motley staff of hide-skinners, a hugely profitable venture as westward expansion eradicates the last of the big herds, wipes out indigenous people and makes way for the railroads. Olmstead has a Dickensian sense of character, and doesn’t hesitate to introduce archetypes. There are boys named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; a black preacher is called Pastor Starling. In a possible nod to Dickens himself, a ne’er-do-well boy is named, simply, Charlie. A Cerberus-like red dog, Michael’s pet and shadow, gallops alongside the killing. Such a quantity of characters can test any novelist — managing their proportions and appearances so they maintain their own identity and momentum while making room for everyone in the wings to reappear before fading from memory. Olmstead admirably navigates this challenge. We never linger to experience the paradox and contradiction in any one character; but at least momentum is served, and the characters keep riding on, pursuing the drift of money, trampling and burning and killing. There’s little space for kindness here — but that, I think, is the point.
It would be easy to object to the glut of fires, floods, wolves, lightning bolts welding a cowboy’s boots to a rail, etc. But this book deserves more. I’m not sure the best tonic in harrowing times is similarly harrowing prose — where, then, is the transformation? — but that’s an aesthetic judgment. Certainly, Olmstead’s flinty and oracular language yields some dazzling sentences:
“The rolling wheels and the feet of the oxen churned up the sooty ash and those in the rear came forward until finally they drove abreast and were as if the teeth in a great rake leaving a rising black billow of murky vapor behind them to float and settle again.”
We pretty much know how a book called “Savage Country” will end. The world is blood and fire, but along the way Elizabeth will have to make some moral decisions, which she will execute quickly and economically. She keeps killing the hell out of those buffalo — the ultimate American sacrifice animal — reducing one debt while accruing another; yet she is kind to blacks, women and children. An American heroine, in flames.
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