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Little Man, Big Novel

[whitespace] book cover Thomas Berger follows up 'Little Big Man' with a worthy 'Return'

By Allen Barra

WHEN A DEFINITIVE study of the modern American Western novel is written, it will undoubtedly be found that the renaissance in that unjustly maligned genre is traceable to Little Big Man, Thomas Berger's great 1964 novel, an American tall tale vaster in scope than anything conceived even by Mark Twain.

Berger's unlikely hero, Jack Crabb, was orphaned as a child of 10 by Cheyenne Indians on a whiskey tear. Jack was raised by the Cheyenne, but "I am a white man and never forgot it." Traveling across the West and moving back and forth between the two cultures, Jack led a life that was a cutaway view of the frontier at its wildest period in the 1870s.

Old friends and acquaintances disappeared and reappeared with Dickensian regularity, often under different names and guises--for what is the point of the West if not to reinvent oneself? The most legendary figures of the Old West crossed his path, from Wild Bill Hickok ("[He] was never himself a braggart. He didn't have to be. Others did it for him") to Wyatt Earp ("When he looked at you as if you were garbage, you might not have agreed with him, but you had sufficient doubt to stay your gun hand") to George Armstrong Custer, whose death at the Little Big Horn Jack would eventually witness.

When last heard from, Jack was winding down in an Old Pioneers Home, age (perhaps) 111 years, dictating his memoirs to a man of letters named Ralph Fielding Snell.

IF BERGER'S new instant classic, The Return of Little Big Man, is evidence, Jack didn't die in that home but escaped to get away from the avaricious Snell. He had, it appears, a great many more stories to tell about his years on the frontier, from the inside story of the death of Wild Bill (Jack was supposed to be watching his back) to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (a drunken Doc Holliday started it all) to the murder of Sitting Bull.

To fill the enormous hole left by Hickok's death, Berger has Jack hook up with another legend, an amiable, bowler-topped gunslinger who turns out to be Bat Masterson. Jack and Bat descend on Dodge City at the height of its cow-town glory.

In Dodge, Jack gets "buffaloed" again by, of course, Wyatt Earp; sees the lovely dance-hall madam Dora Hand slain by a stray bullet; and, finally, makes contact with his old tribe at the tail end of the Cheyenne Autumn uprising, which leads to a job as a translator at a school for Cheyenne youths. (A Cheyenne boy's question to an army officer: "How is it you have so much hair on your face but none on the top of your head, where it belongs?" is translated by Jack as "We thank you for the opportunity, we are eager to learn as much as we can.")

At the school Jack meets his future love, Amanda, a tough-minded reformer and frontier protofeminist. Amanda brings a new and much-needed element into the Little Big Man saga. In the hands of a lesser novelist, or at least one with an obvious social agenda, Amanda would have been a character created to be mocked, a symbol of white liberal condescension toward Indians. Amanda does inspire her share of laughs, but Jack sees the frontier's need for her stubborn, feminine strength. "If she had created men," he says, "they would have been nicer than the ones turned out by God."

In Jack's eyes, the great heroes of the frontier are godlike, though in the flawed Greek sense. Buffalo Bill Cody's stock doesn't sell for much these days, with most historians seeing his Wild West show as a spectacle that exploited and degraded Indians. But Jack, who ends up touring Europe with Cody and Annie Oakley in the book's most satisfying section, comes to admire Bill for "his personal style of being the center of attention without lowering the value of those around him, which was the manner of an Indian chief."

He is even generous enough to draw a comparison between Custer, whom he does not like, and Sitting Bull, whom he loves: "The attitude he had of regarding as pathetic everyone who could not be Custer stood him in good stead at the end. So with Sitting Bull." Jack sees them all as larger than life, because they are larger than life--the time and the place in which they lived gave them the stages on which to grow into legends.

Near the end of the Wild West tour, Jack, having watched Cody's replications of Custer's Last Stand and other events he lived through, muses that "I could start my own exhibition just on the basis of places I been and the famous people I knowed at the most important times so far as history goes." So he could, so he has, and so, with luck, he may again.

The Return of Little Big Man by Thomas Berger; Little, Brown; 448 pages; $24.50 cloth.

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From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro.

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