High jinks and slaughter

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The Last Crossing

Guy Vanderhaeghe

Little, Brown, pp. 470, £

Whatever else may be said of Guy Vanderhaeghe, author of The English Boy, he does at least have one serious fan. The admirer in question is Annie Proulx, who appears on the front cover of this new novel extolling ‘a feast of a book’, and on the back suggesting that ‘here are brilliant writing, picaresque adventure, history and studies of human nature’. Miss Proulx’s work, it may be said, comes from much the same territory as her protégé: that vast, underpopulated expanse of prairie running all the way from Wyoming to mid-western Canada, where a sharp pain in the fleeing horseman’s leg is pretty sure to have come courtesy of the teeth of an opportunistic timberwolf.

Prospective readers looking for another slice of North America à la Proulx, full of characters with names like Tulk Farrago gamely founding their steakhouse diners in defiance of foreclosing banks, will probably be disappointed by The Last Crossing. Set back in the mid-to-later stretches of the Victorian era, it is a historical novel, serious and whimsical by turns, threatening in places to turn into a full-scale romp, but always dragged back to base camp by the elementals of death, dalliance and destruction. Jolly good larks, in other words, along with the slaughter of the innocent and grizzly bears.

Charles Gaunt, Vanderhaeghe’s chief tale-teller — the action is conveyed by half-a-dozen narrative voices — has come west in genteel search of pious twin Simon, last seen in the clutches of a mountebank preacher named the Reverend Wither- spoon, who had managed to convince him that native American Indians are the lost tribes of Israel. Alongside him canters vainglorious, syphilitic elder brother Adding- ton, together with a band of hastily recruited local flotsam: Dooley, the saloon-keeper, Civil War vet Curtis Straw, a Yankee journalist keen to write Addington up as an English Cody, and a buxom beauty at whose feet Charles prostrates himself named Lucy Stoveall.

Lucy has her own private quest in view, the identity of her sister’s murderer. The co-existence, on a trail meandering slowly north, of this kind of brute savagery, incidental high jinks and a great deal of black-ish humour, makes for an odd, but not unedifying, read. Vats of blood get spilled on the prairie floor — including Addison’s, who makes one hunting trip too many —and the object of the exercise is eventually run to ground in somewhat unfortunate circumstances (as to how Simon has been amusing himself, readers should note the presence of a work entitled The Spirit of the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture on Vanderhaeghe’s acknowledgments page).

Overlong, at nearly 500 pages, yet neatly concluded — when middle-aged boulevardier Charles discovers that his union with Mrs Stoveall has borne unexpected fruit — The Last Crossing achieves its best effects deep in the brushwood on the edge of the trail, in passages where members of the cast reflect on their past careers. For some reason Curtis’s memories of his days in the Union army or the half-breed tracker Potts’s old life among the Blackfoot tepees have a conviction that occasionally eludes the main narrative. As so often in adventure novels set in the Victorian era, one yearned for the hand of George Macdonald Fraser to set everything straight.