Friday, July 3, 2015

One more white man at Little Big Horn

I wonder if Stephen Moran notices Jack Crabb at Little Big Horn.

Moran narrates Norman Lock's new novel, American Meteor, an epic story in a small package (barely 200 pages) that ends at Little Big Horn. Crabb narrates Thomas Berger's 1964 novel Little Big Man, a much bigger, broader story that also concludes at Little Big Horn. Both are white men whose sympathies lie more with the Indians than with the U.S. Cavalry. Moran, in fact, is determined to kill General Custer before the Indians can.

The novels are otherwise quite different, perhaps most noticeably in tone. While Berger wrote with wit about serious matters, Lock rarely breaks a smile. His topic seems to be the rape of the American West, and he doesn't find much humor there.

What I find amazing about Lock's novel is how much territory he covers in so few pages, both in terms of geography and plot. The story opens with Moran as a Civil War bugle boy barely in his teens. He loses an eye in a battle and, while recovering in a hospital, meets Walt Whitman, who remains an influence on him through the rest of the tale.

Moran gets a medal from Gen. Grant, a medal the boy knows he does not deserve, for his injury had more to do with cowardice than heroism. Nevertheless he is selected to ride President Lincoln's funeral train with his bugle. The train takes him to Illinois, and then he keeps going west, working for the new railroad before becoming a photographer. It is as a photographer that he meets the vain Gen. Custer, who wants photographic evidence of his heroism against the Indians. Moran takes the assignment, leaving a girl and a wonderful career opportunity behind, because he has a different objective: killing Custer.

A longer novel might have served Lock better, for there hardly seems time to develop Moran's motivation for his actions. Crabb at least lived with the Indians for a long time before the Battle of Little Big Horn. Moran just meets Custer, and a few pages later is trying to kill him.

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