THE CROWN OF COLUMBUS.
and Louise Erdrich.
382 pages. $21.95.
As we approach 1992 and the 500-year anniversary of Columbus' journey to the New World, there will be many who will try to catch and express the significance of this event. Tomes of fiction and non-fiction are about to descend upon us. Certainly it is a historical event of great proportions. This, in itself, makes such attempts fitting. One of the earliest entrants in this (P cavalcade is Michael Dorris' and Louise Erdrich's novel, "The Crown of Columbus."
The plot revolves around an assistant professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth, Vivian Twostar. She is coming up for tenure and must do some research on Columbus for the alumni magazine. This research leads to a night alone in the library. In passing the hours, Dr. Twostar discovers the Cobb family papers -- and eventually -- a missing page to a lost diary of Christopher Columbus. The current Cobb thinks the diary will lead him to a fortune: the lost crown of Christopher Columbus. Such a financial windfall would pay off his debts (for which Mr. Cobb is under indictment), and restore him to his pre-eminent position.
Dr. Twostar is lured to the Bahamas to meet Cobb and, in the process, is pulled into an adventure in which the good are rewarded and the bad justly punished.
PTC From this plot outline it should become apparent that "The Crown of Columbus" is shaped as a novel of action. If it is to work at all it must have a compelling manner of delivering a story -- much as a good adventure or mystery does. Unfortunately, this does not happen.
This novel by Mr. Dorris and Ms. Erdrich -- writers who are married to each other -- takes a cumbersome approach, using alternate first person narrations to tell the story. This device worked well in Ms. Erdrich's last novel, "Tracks." But the way that book worked was as an exploration of character. All novels involve both character and plot, but most succeed in emphasizing one over the other.
However, different techniques work better in different forms. The alternating first-person narrations (as generally handled in this novel) offer the reader a chance to see the same action from multiple angles. Hence, this device lends itself to detailed character development. The price to be paid (as practiced in this book) is the lack of a clean device for advancing the plot. That's why the same technique that worked well in "Tracks," which emphasized character, is a failure in "The Crown of Columbus," which, by design, must feature plot and action.
The action sequences in this novel are clumsy and improbable. There are many scenes that are not credible, and the characters are not engaging: Vivian Twostar is all too perfect; Rogers (the lover) is all too unlikable; and Nash Twostar (the child) is all too cliched. Thus, Erdrich/Dorris give up character (her strong suit) for a story that is not compelling. The action is entirely predictable and the journey there is full of unnecessary detours.
There is not much to recommend in "The Crown of Columbus." Undoubtedly, over the next year we can only hope that someone else will write "Columbus material" that is worth discovering.
Mr. Boylan is a writer and a philosophy professor living in the Washington area.