IT IS a daring thing for a writer to travel to a strange land halfway around the world and tackle its most enduring myths, but Greg Matthews, an Australian, has done just that, not once but twice. In his first novel, The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he tried with mixed success to give new life to one of America's best-known literary characters. In Heart of the Country, his second, he tackles the Old West, and he poses himself a further challenge by choosing for his protagonist an illegitimate halfbreed hunchback named Joe Cobden, surely one of the most unlikely figures ever to ride the frontier.
Joe's Indian mother dies shortly after his birth. He is abandoned by his white father and adopted by a St. Louis doctor. He is an intelligent youth, but troublesome, with few qualities that endear him either to the reader or his adoptive father. His hunchback develops in his sixth year, adding to his difficulties, and at age 15 he runs away from home, heading west, where he becomes first a woodcutter, later a dishwasher, whorehouse bouncer, buffalo hunter, hunting guide, and finally a woodcarver of cigar-store Indians and ship's figureheads. But what promises to be an extended odyssey is cut short in mid-novel when Joe settles down in the town of Valley Forge, Kansas, where he finds himself caring for a demented man and his unpleasant son, and at this point the tale loses some of its energy.
Matthews moved to Kansas to write the story and his love for the West is plain. He writes with confidence and skill. In The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he copied Twain's dialect-narrative; here he adopts a far more literate, indeed a literary, style. (It should be said that his fondness for graphic descriptions of the sordid and gruesome may be distasteful to some.) He has done the extensive research necessary to familiarize himself with a land and century not his own, and except for the flagrant misspelling "Sharpe's" for Sharps rifle, and a few lesser historical errors, he presents the facts of life on the frontier credibly. However, the use of British spellings and conventions throughout the book is jarring to American eyes. "Calibre," "gaol" for "jail," and "4 July" for "the Fourth of July," strike particularly alien notes in a Western narrative. It would have been a wise editorial decision to revise the text to American standards for this edition.
But although Matthews has the facts at his fingertips, something essential about the feeling of the Old West eludes him. The picture he paints remains flat and lifeless, and in the end he fails to offer us a fresh view of the West or to make for the unlikely figure of Joe Cobden a place in the pantheon of engaging literary heroes. THE STORY is populated with familiar stereotypes: the pious preacher whose private life is anything but admirable, the sheriff too impressed with his own authority, the creepy undertaker, the gossiping townsfolk. It would seem that Matthews, like Joe, is best at creating wooden figures. Those he offers here are of a particularly mean-spirited sort, and they show no trace of the qualities that enabled real 19th -- century Americans to settle the western vastness. Many have little to do with Joe, except in passing. The few characters with an original twist are allowed to drift out of the story too soon. There is a hint of misogyny as well. The women have scarcely two dimensions, more like one and a half, and they suffer some appalling indignities at the author's hands.
Matthews fails most seriously in the way he handles Joe. Here he has created an original character, yet he treats him as he does the rest, like a puppet on a string, and what Joe truly wants is difficult to grasp. His feelings are described, never evoked. He has no clear goal or ambition; except for his early desire to become a buffalo hunter, he is aimless most of the time. "Could no man be a hero unless faced with overwhelming misfortune?" Joe asks himself while still a child, in the midst of reading his way through the great novels in his adoptive father's library. "Was this the only way in which a man could define himself, against great odds and the vicissitudes of fate? Joseph was convinced it must be so."
Literature suggests it must be so as well; in the great stories the heroes pass through crucibles of events or emotions that change them forever. But Joe Cobden faces no challenge of this magnitude, and in the end he is much as he was at the start -- unable to accept friendship when it is offered, unable to accept his own deformity, unable even to accept the inner man who lives in that bent body. He is a character who fails to change, and many readers may not find in his life sufficient reason to follow him across more than 50 years and 500 hundred pages.
And yet once I had finished the book and set it aside for a day or two, I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I missed Joe Cobden. Rather, I missed what Joe might have become if only Greg Matthews had cut his strings and let him grow to full size in spirit, if not in body. For I saw in Joe the potential to be what I think he wanted to be more than anything else: a true Man of the West. John Byrne Cooke is the author of "The Snowblind Moon: A Novel of the West."