By Michael Punke
Carroll & Graf. 262 pp. $25
Historical fiction often takes one of two forms: either a fictional character interacts with famous real-life figures, or a genuine personage, occasionally little-known, is recovered and brought to light. Among westerns, one thinks of Loren Estleman's Billy Gashade or Thomas Berger's Little Big Man as superior examples of the former. Among the latter, the success of the novel can depend on the life of the character who is recovered nearly as much as on the skill of the novelist. James Carlos Blake's terrific The Pistoleer takes on the life of John Wesley Hardin, for example, and there are scores of novels of varying quality devoted to Frank and Jesse James, Doc Holiday, the Earps and other more or less recognizable characters. Michael Punke's accomplished debut novel, The Revenant, is an example of the recovered figure genre. It demonstrates Punke's keen eye for a story as he tells the life of an obscure mountain man, Hugh Glass, and his companions.
Glass lived an extraordinary life by any measure, and Punke's briskly paced prose and attention to period detail do him justice. The central episode in this life has three parts: a grizzly bear's mauling of Glass; his companions' decision to abandon him after he has been wounded; and Glass's subsequent quest for revenge. The novel begins with Glass being left behind by Jim Bridger, only a boy in 1823 and years from becoming the most famous of the mountain men, and John Fitzgerald, a thoroughly despicable and self-interested scoundrel.
The injuries that Glass suffers at the claws and teeth of the grizzly (he is nearly scalped, his back is virtually flayed, a leg is broken, and his throat is almost torn out) lead his companions to believe that he will die. The men provide their best field ministrations, stitching his back wounds, scalp and throat, and then they wait for him to die. Against all odds, Glass persists in living. Finally, the leader of the party asks for volunteers to stay behind and bury Glass when he dies and then catch up.
Bridger agrees to stay with Glass out of laudable motives (Glass has befriended and taught him); Fitzgerald does so out of greed. A few days later, Fitzgerald, believing that Arikara braves will overrun them, convinces Bridger that they should abandon Glass. Adding to their betrayal, Fitzgerald and Bridger take from Glass his rifle and knife, leaving him virtually defenseless.
But Glass doesn't die. Punke describes in detail his journey to relative safety at a fort 350 miles south, skillfully recounting the manner in which Glass eats, fends for himself and travels. From matters related to hunting and starting fires to the creation of weapons and the proper way to paddle a batard, Punke is wonderfully clear and expert without being pedantic. He also demonstrates considerable proficiency in weaving into the novel the backstories of the men who abandoned Glass.
Perhaps no one but Glass is so well equipped to survive such an ordeal. He has an adventurer's mind and some schooling. As a young man, he was forced to become a pirate, escaped from Jean Lafitte when his fortress island was burned, hiked across Texas avoiding Comanches, Comancheros and other dangers. And he was captured and nearly killed by the Pawnee before they adopted him. On his quest for vengeance against Bridger and Fitzgerald, he survives Arikara attacks, bad weather, wild animals, starvation and numberless other threats. In many ways, Glass demonstrates Nietzsche's dictum that "He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."
A famous movie director once observed that critics were prone to judging his movies against the movie that the critics thought should have been made, and certainly this can be a trap for book reviewers. Indeed, I kept thinking that what would raise this novel from a superb revenge story to high art is a glimpse of Glass's life after his quest for revenge. How did he, as Viktor Frankl asks in Man's Search for Meaning, fight the moral deformity, bitterness and disillusionment that so often go along with someone who has been grievously wronged? We never find out, and perhaps this is outside the scope of the novel. Still, this is a quibble born of a curiosity inspired by Punke's superb rendering of Glass's life and times. Punke has added considerably to our understanding of human endurance and of the men who pushed west in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark -- a significant feat, that. *
Daniel McMahon is the principal at DeMatha Catholic High School, where he also teaches world literature.