May 9, 2004
Not many fictional romances have been as improbable as this one: Lady Tasmin Berrybender, the strong-willed, sharp-tongued, dazzlingly beautiful eldest daughter of a very rich English peer; and Jim Snow the Sin Killer, a supremely skillful but illiterate and solitary plainsman, orphaned young and raised by a half-crazy frontier preacher to speak in tongues and chastise offenders against the Word of God. They meet accidentally while skinny-dipping in the Missouri River, where Lord Albany Berrybender has led his enormous family and equipage on the first stage of an extended shooting party in the 1830s. Jim and Tasmin’s glimpse of each other’s sublime nakedness produces a blinding discharge of erotic energy, strong enough to power a steamboat or, in this case, The Berrybender Narratives, Larry McMurtry’s four-volume comic epic, which concludes with Folly and Glory.
In the first three volumes, Jim guides the Berrybender party overland to a trading post in the Yellowstone country after the Missouri freezes over, and then across the high plains to another trading post near Santa Fe. Lord Berrybender shoots at every animal he encounters, pausing only to swoop down on every pretty woman he encounters. The painter George Catlin (a real and significant historical figure, like many other characters in the tetralogy) moons over the ladies while doing Indian portraits for the Eastern market. Jim and Tasmin “rut” furiously under the open skies. The rugged, hard-drinking trappers and mountain men (including Kit Carson) wintering at the trading post gape shyly at Tasmin, all helplessly in love with her. The many other Berrybender children comment on all these matters, with slightly implausible erudition and hilarious mock-solemnity. Some of them, however, disappear suddenly, victims of unfriendly Indians, buffalo stampedes, or cholera. Death is never very far behind laughter in these novels, though some of the deaths are almost as farcical and funny as the wordplay
The sunny, broad humor of the first two books clouds over increasingly in the last two. The beautiful but harsh country begins to wear Tasmin down. “The plains, the hills, the West,” she admits to herself, “were far stronger than any strength they had to set against it.” Drinking horse piss during a trek across the desert and watching babies die, her own among them, are hard enough; yet something else devastates her even more. Exasperated by Jim’s stoic isolation, she falls in love again, this time with Jim’s friend Pomp Charbonneau, the son of Sacajawea and godson of the famous explorer Captain William Clark. Every other man she’s met adores Tasmin, but she can’t reach the dreamy, melancholy Pomp. Her failure, and Pomp’s death, leave her nearly prostrate as Folly and Glory begins.
History intrudes. Texas is about to break away from Mexico and declare itself a republic. The Berrybenders, harassed by the Mexican government, leave for Austin, across dangerous country. The danger appears; something unspeakable happens. The Sin Killer avenges it, in an explosion of violence that shatters more than the sinners.
It’s surprising that in so long a novel (The Berrybender Narratives really is a single book), moving across so vast a territory, there’s so little about the landscape. There are scarcely any descriptive passages, though there are a few choice phrases, like this one about a band of Pawnees riding away: “Soon the prairie swallowed them up, as a boat is lost in the curving distance of the sea.” Instead there’s a great river of talk, fed by numerous tributaries: the risqué chatter and affectionate raillery of the English girls; the earthy earnestness of the frontiersmen; the off-key syntax and rhythms of the Indians. The novel lingers in your aural memory rather than your visual one. You probably won’t find yourself daydreaming of waving prairie grass, but you may be saying “dern” and “I reckon” for a while.
Even more, of course, it’s character that makes the novel memorable. Jim and Tasmin are extraordinarily colorful and vital, though a bit too much larger than life; and Pomp is a little gauzy and enigmatic. But the horde of minor characters are superbly done: the astoundingly selfish yet somehow admirable Lord Berrybender; Greasy Lake, a down-at-the-heels Blackfoot shaman; the hapless Kit Carson, a brilliant comic creation; Petal, Jim and Tasmin’s uncannily willful and precocious little daughter; and twenty more.
Whose is the “folly and glory”? The glory is our land; the folly is our history – much of it, anyway. After he’s told of the death of his beloved godson Pomp, Captain Clark sits by the Mississippi and broods:
Had it been glory, or had it been folly, the unrelenting American push? Were town and farm better than red men and buffalo? Bill Clark didn’t know, but he could not but feel bittersweet about the changes he himself had helped bring. … Perhaps old men could not help questioning the life they had lived, as their life approached its end. He would never deny, nor could he forget the great march – the land, the vast and various land, was so beautiful that there was a kind of glory in it. [p. 28]
How does The Berrybender Narratives compare with McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove? It doesn’t; nothing does. Lonesome Dove is the best novel – maybe, except for the journals of Lewis and Clark, the best book – yet written about the 19th-century American frontier. The Berrybender Narratives is only a chip off that colossal block. But I reckon that’s good enough for me.