By William T. Vollmann
Viking. 1,356 pp. $55
The story of the Nez Perce War of 1877 seems like a ready-made narrative for modern times. It pitted noble (but doomed) Indian Chief Joseph fighting for the survival of his people against a reluctant antagonist, Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who was ordered to do his duty against his conscience. Their battle played out on the most imposing and picturesque landscapes that North America has to offer, with a still-relevant question — Can America preserve its dignity while rushing to embrace its destiny? — hovering in the air like smoke over a battlefield. The story is Sophoclean in its clarity and perfect for the kind of historical fiction that dominates the literary marketplace: clean lines, strong characters and a colorful time and place to animate the drama.
So what happens when one of our most challenging, archly nonconformist and accomplished writers — one for whom it seems impossible to write an easy book, much less a short one — takes up the story and sets it in motion in his own inimitable way? For starters, William T. Vollmann emphasizes the nostalgic aspects of his interpretation by including himself, in the persona of William the Blind, in the cast of characters of his sprawling novel “The Dying Grass.” He is our narrator and our guide, present both now (when the story is being told) and then (when the story takes place).
But knowing the past or even having a perspective on it will be as difficult as the capture of Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce, a running battle that stretched over many months and covered more than 1,000 miles before his surrender. Exhaustion and despair attended Howard’s command and the Nez Perce’s journey, and so it is perhaps unwise for Vollmann to begin by creating the same feeling in the reader of this 1,356-page book, the fifth volume of his ongoing “Seven Dreams” series. Those feelings of despair and exhaustion are compounded by a flitting focus on a few characters hardly central to the story, such as President Rutherford B. Hayes, Wittfield Blurick and a scout named Doc.
Also unwise at first, perhaps, but ultimately to the book’s astonishing credit, is the unusual form and structure: It progresses without quotations marks and with trains of thought and interior dialogue set off by indents and further indents when a thought is interrupted by another. One must learn how to read this novel, how to chase the thread, just as Howard and his crew must learn the language of the plains. For us, for the Nez Perce and for Chief Joseph’s band, the ruthless pedagogy stretches on for what feels like an eternity and is followed by glossaries, addenda, indexes and a list of characters that reads like a Homeric catalogue of ships.
But I tell you now: Get over it. Because if you do, you will have given yourself the reading experience of a lifetime.
When we finally are set down in the story in 1877, leading up to the council held at Fort Lapwai in Idaho Territory, we meet Gen. Howard, who is still fatigued and troubled by the Civil War, and others in the U.S. Army who have no consensus, much less common purpose. The Nez Perce are disputing a change in policy that would confine them to a reservation in Idaho far from their ancestral homelands in the Wallowa Valley (Oregon). But they, too, are divided: Toohoolhoolzote, Looking Glass and Chief Joseph and his wives all have different opinions about what they should do. Accept the new terms? Hope that Howard will honor old agreements? Fight? Flee?
The confusion turns to contention when Toohoolhoolzote is imprisoned and when the Nez Perce are attacked by untrained volunteers during a parley. Everyone is drawn into a series of confrontations and evasions. Then, the chase begins, as the Nez Perce ride eastward away from the U.S. Army. That chase is what this novel is truly about.
Vollmann, who won a National Book Award in 2005, has written a novel of incredible significance and power. In the manner of “Blood Meridian,” but with characters who do a lot less convenient philosophizing than Cormac McCarthy’s, “The Dying Grass” presents a place and time that is gripping, immediate and bloody.
A thousand different decisions need to be made as the fight progresses — where to cross that river, when to rest the horses, how to best evade capture, whether to ride at night or to camp — and in those decisions, this monumental story takes shape and our interest is engaged.
What Vollmann has done is nothing short of miraculous: He has taken a story whose ending is well known, yet he has made us wonder how it will end. By the 1870s, it was already known — by Indians and whites alike — that the U.S. government was powerful enough to impose its will on the people within the boundaries of the nation. Yet, the Indian Wars still managed to throw everything into question. The story’s complicated text is set in such a way as to ensure that there is a page for every one of the 1,213 miles traveled by Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce on their journey.)
Vollmann seems keen to undermine the quaint notion, frequently implied by historical fiction, that everyone is really the same underneath it all. These Indian characters — particularly Joseph’s wives — are energetically unlike us. Nor does Vollmann make the common mistake of reducing the Indians in his book to a collection of virtues (at best) or missed opportunities (at worst) who canter onstage to unload one-sentence aphorisms better suited for inspirational posters or Facebook memes, such as “I shall fight no more forever” or “I will always be your friend!” Instead, Vollmann creates complex characters, fully alive in the moment of their existence, buffeted by contradictory and compelling impulses, and the effect is incredible.
Vollmann has written an American tragedy with all of the light and shadow, plains and mountains, vast distances and unforgiving climates (political, philosophical, emotional, physical) of our nation. In a time and a market that seem determined to bleed the risk out of fiction — to give us compact narratives of our better angels in the manner of a photograph safely stowed in a locket — Vollmann has written a masterpiece that delivers us to the far shore of our past, a past that is still at war with the ghosts of its decisions. “The Dying Grass” is brilliant and alive.
David Treuer’s most recent novel is “Prudence.”