Larry McMurtry -- taming the West

May 05, 2002|By KEN FUSON | KEN FUSON,Special to the Sun

Sin Killer, by Larry McMurtry. Simon and Schuster. 304 pages. $25.

Larry McMurtry, who seems to write good books as quickly as most people can read them, has returned to his favorite subject, the American West, in this, the first of a promised four novels to be known collectively as The Berrybender Narratives.

If Sin Killer is the standard, the other three can't get here fast enough.

This time, instead of following cowboys on a cattle drive (Lonesome Dove and its literary offspring) or trailing an American pioneer family as it heads west (Boone's Lick), McMurtry has taken a seat aboard the great steamer Rocky Mount as it pushes up the Missouri River in 1832.

The ship's most important cargo is a rich and buffoonish English lord who has come to the states solely to "shoot different animals from those he shot at home."

Lord Albany Berrybender's kooky collection of children and staff members certainly puts the fun in dysfunctional. McMurtry has populated his boat with a manor full of misfits, from a mysterious child named Seven (the good lord numbered his last 10 children; naming them proved too tiresome) to Venetia Kennet, a Haydn-playing cellist whose attempts to snag the rich lord gain her something less than she has bargained for, particularly after Berrybender's unfortunate encounters with a discharging gun, a knife-wielding Sioux and frostbite.

Lewis & Clark, meet Monty Python.

Oh, what glee McMurtry must have felt as he introduced these pompous innocents to the charms of their new land -- for starters, kidnappings, blizzards and ill-tempered Indians. There are moments when McMurtry's wit pushes the family's adventure perilously close to the shoals of slapstick and farce, but he's skillful enough to pull away before crashing.

For one thing, few authors match McMurtry's voice of unsentimental authority when it comes to describing the random brutality and natural hazards that greeted those hardy pioneers who ventured west of, say, St. Louis, in the 1800s. He writes as though he were one of them.

For another, McMurtry grants at least one of the English interlopers more than a shred of dignity. Tasmin Berrybender is spoiled rotten, but she's also a randy, spirited and independent woman who "wanted this New World to herself." She's the best female character in McMurtry's ever-growing oeuvre since Jacy in The Last Picture Show.

At its heart, the latest novel is a love story between Tasmin and Jim Snow, the "Sin Killer" of the title, an Indian fighter who seems to appear whenever Tasmin needs him, which is often.

It's a joy to watch McMurtry skip among the worlds of English nobility, French traders and the various Indian tribes of mid-19th century America, juggling the personality traits and travails of some three dozen characters. The plot and dialogue feel not just logical, but inevitable.

Each of the four novels will follow the Berrybenders along a different river -- treks along the Yellowstone, the Rio Grande and the Brazos await. There are plenty of story strands still dangling from the Missouri River ride to keep readers eager for the next installment.

What's more intriguing is whether one of our best story-tellers can hit his ambitious target -- to capture the taming of the American West through an epic saga that is grand, that is sweeping and that is very, very funny.

One river down, three to go. Chop, chop, Mr. McMurtry. Please don't keep us waiting.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at the Des Moines Register.

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