Dee Brown is prolific. Twenty-two previous books are listed at the front of "Killdeer Mountain," all but a few sharing common subject matter: the western frontier in the 19th century and the struggle between Indians and the interlopers who seized their lands and destroyed their culture. Essentially, Brown is a narrative historian, but he is a switch-hitter. Fourteen of his previous works are nonfiction but eight are fiction; his two best-known books are a narrative history, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," and a historical novel, "Creek Mary's Blood." Book World KILLDEER MOUNTAIN. By Dee Brown. (Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 279 pp. $14.95)
The switch from accomplished narrative historian to historical novelist may seem easy, but it is not, and Brown only partly succeeds in making that switch in "Killdeer Mountain."
A narrative historian may structure his materials so that they create a plot, but his basic story is given to him by history. A novelist, even a historical novelist, must create both his story and his plot, and the story should be pleasing, the plot significant. Brown's story may please those readers who like mystery and adventure, but the significance of his plot is obscure.
In "Killdeer Mountain," as in "Creek Mary's Blood," Brown's narrator is a newspaper reporter attempting to piece together the fragments of a story out of the past. The focus of action in the present is the opening of a new fort in the Dakotas dedicated to the memory of a Maj. Charles Rawley, who supposedly died in an explosion some years before. As narrator Sam Morrison travels up the Missouri River in a paddle-wheeler bound for the ceremony, he talks to passengers who knew Rawley and discovers that Rawley's story is mysterious: Various people give differing accounts of the man and the things that he had done. The mystery deepens when Morrison realizes that a stowaway whom he has hidden in his cabin might well be Rawley, or might be an impersonator of him.
I was faintly reminded of Melville's "The Confidence Man," but in "Killdeer Mountain" all the mystification bears little philosophical or psychological fruit. At the outset of his story, Sam Morrison muses that "the world we view is a complex mirror that tricks us with false images," but any profundity latent in that idea is not realized in the story, and one is uneasily aware of Dee Brown rather than the world holding up the mirror. The whole thing seems to be mystification for mystification's sake--or for the sake of a good story without the significance of a good plot.
Brown is at his best narrating adventurous episodes within the novel--the skirmish in which the real Rawley may or may not have been killed, the full-scale battle between soldiers and Indians at Killdeer Mountain, or the raid into Canada during a raging blizzard. Much of Brown's nonfiction describes military campaigns in circumstantial detail, and in this novel he draws on skills he has developed as a narrative historian.
But most readers want vivid characters in novels as well as vivid narration, and here again Brown has only limited success, partly because he has not mastered an art unnecessary to the historian but crucial to the novelist--the art of dialogue. Brown's dialogue is artificial; it flattens his characters rather than vivifying them.
We may accept a well-educated doctor even in casual conversation describing the aftermath of gunfire this way: "Tiny puffs of pearly smoke lifted and vanished in a sky filled with frightened birds, the whirr of their beating wings mingling and then fading with the echoes of gunfire." But we draw the line when an army sergeant talks about "taking shelter under a wide-limbed evergreen where we waited with only the soft sound of ice particles brushing the needles above us." The distinction between doctor and sergeant becomes blurred in such speeches; more serious, we sense that the author has not experienced his characters from within, that he has allowed them no integrity or coherence in his own imagination.
No matter how much historical matter a novel contains, it should be judged finally as a novel, a created work of fiction. "Killdeer Mountain" occasionally evokes the atmosphere of the western frontier and it tells a fairly good story, but it is not a good novel. add e R.E.M. at the 9:30 Club --
This year's underground Wunderkinder, R.E.M. of Athens, Ga., hit the 9:30 club's stage late Saturday night already worked up to fever pitch. Lead singer Michael Stipe lurched toward the mike, collared it and began belting out surreal, muddled lyrics in classic southern pop style--hoarse yet tuneful, more concerned with passion than with precision.
Other band members capered about good-naturedly, feigning near collisions time and again while grinding out measure after measure of murky, monochromatic post-pop. The band pulled off a real coup with "Sitting Still," the flip side of R.E.M.'s debut 45. While confounding every imaginable rule of pop song craft, the group nonetheless enchanted a packed house of power pop devotees. The song ran far too long, it lacked strong riffs, and the lyrics were well nigh unintelligible. But the crowd was won over by Stipe's powerful vocalise and the token Beatle-isms the rest of the group repeatedly fell back on.--Howard Wuelfing