by David Anthony Durham
Published by Doubleday
288 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Go West, Young Man
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
The opening pages of David Anthony Durham's novel of life in the post-Civil War American West are so promising that they create a kind of breath-holding anticipation, an expectation of a real literary find. In particular, his descriptive passages sing with a lyrical freshness:
Looking to the west, he could just make out the geometric shadows that were Crownsville, that cowtown newly bloomed and thriving, connected to the East by a bloodline of iron and steel. To the north and south and back to the east the land rolled away in undulating nothingness. The grass lay heavy and tired from the beating of the previous evening's rain, and the April sky was not a thing of air and gas. Rather, it lay like a solid ceiling of slate, pressing the living down into the prairie.
In a sense, Durham delivers on this early promise with a novel brimming with descriptive richness. But in too many other ways, Gabriel's Story is a bit of a letdown, too much in the conventional genre of the Western adventure novel to break very much new ground.
Still, Durham tries, giving the formula something of a twist in making his main character 15 years old and black. But Gabriel Lynch does not so much have adventures as watch them go on all around him, powerless to do very much to direct the action. Though this relative passivity reveals much about his marginalized status, it steals something from the heart of the novel and keeps us from knowing young Gabriel as fully as we would like to.
As the story opens, the resentful boy and his younger brother Ben have been forced to move from the relative comfort of middle-class Baltimore to a rough homestead near the fictional town of Crownsville, Kansas. His widowed mother has just remarried and Gabriel has already made up his mind to dislike his new stepfather, Solomon: "This man," he claims, "had walked in over his father's freshly dug grave." Gabriel's first glimpse of the one-room sod shack they will be living in discourages him even further:
The soddy stood, in the light of day, like an earthen ogre, with the door its gaping mouth and the dingy window its one remaining eye. The roof hung low and tired, a bushy mass of hair no different from the fields of grass around them, except dead where the fields were living.
Soon Gabriel must face the heartbreaking task of breaking the sod for planting crops and cope with the ugly racism of some of the white settlers. His seething resentment boils over when he talks to his orphaned friend James:
"I was gonna be a doctor before they brought me out here."
It's obvious that Gabriel won't last much longer in Kansas and when he attends a horse-auction in town he meets up with Marshall Hogg, blond-haired, charismatic and bound for Texas. James convinces Gabriel that they should offer their services to Hogg as ranch-hands, in spite of their total lack of experience. Though the two boys should have been warned when he forces them into a humiliating fistfight as a sort of test, he hires them more for his personal amusement than anything else.
It is at this place in the story that there is a subtle but noticeable shift of emphasis from Gabriel to Marshall Hogg, who in spite of his considerable intelligence turns out to be the quintessential hell-for-leather bad guy. From this point on Hogg holds the reins, controlling the action by dragging his small group of disreputable men and the two boys from one ugly misadventure to another. Hogg thinks nothing of raping young women wherever he finds them and murder is practically his hobby.
After a particularly heinous spree of revenge-killings at a ranch, Hogg tells Gabriel and James, "You boys got two choices. You sit here and wait for the law to show. You tell them the best story you can and then get yourselves hanged. Cause that's what would happen. Two niggers sitting on the porch with a string of dead bodies around and an open safe. You know you're hanged already. That's option number one. Number two is you take a hold of one of them guns and come along with us and quit this country and try your luck elsewhere. Which is it?"
As in their parents' time of slavery, the two no longer have a choice. From then on Gabriel becomes a passive observer of Hogg's evil, practically a victim of his oppression. In fact the great majority of the white characters in Gabriel's Story (with the notable exception of the righteous Scotsman Dunlop) tend towards insensitivity and outright racism, reveling in their sense of power over the black, Indian and Mexican characters, most of whom end up badly abused. Though this doubtless reflects a grim truth in the historical West, it would have been bolder and more reflective of the complexities of human nature for Durham to mix up the good and evil in his characters, making them less predictable along cultural lines.
As with any conventional Western, after many twists and turns of plot there is a final showdown, a kind of shootout between the forces of good and evil. In following this timeworn formula the novel is no more original than a Zane Grey story or even an old Gene Autry western where the good cowboys are bound to win. In this, and in its relatively shallow minor characters, the book is a disappointment.
Yet there is no doubt that David Anthony Durham is a writer of formidable power, particularly in his descriptions: "The land stretched out pale and unpeopled, with tufts of grass erupting from the ground like blemishes on the back of some scurvied reprobate." Perhaps in the final analysis the main character of this story isn't Gabriel or even Marshall Hogg, but the landscape of the American West itself, full of richness and vibrant life. | February 2001
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.