By Sorrow's River, by Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster. 368 pages. $26.
Through the first two novels in a planned four-book set, members of the Lord Berrybender family have survived - some of them, anyway - random Indian attacks, brutal blizzards and a rampaging buffalo stampede.
What other perils await these wacky European aristocrats and their servants, whose oafish patriarch decided for some strange reason to embark on a hunting trip throughout the untamed American West in the 1800s? Plenty, it turns out.
By Sorrow's River is Larry McMurtry's third installment in what he refers to as "The Berrybender Narratives," and it is by far the best. He has greatly toned down the cartoonish slapstick of the first book, Sin Killer, and the meandering plot lines in the second, The Wandering Hill. What remains is part page-flipping adventure story, part Old West soap opera.
As this episode - er, novel - begins, the Berrybender hunting expedition departs its winter camp in the northern Great Plains, with the goal of reaching Santa Fe. Tasmin Berrybender, the strong-willed and sharp-tongued heroine, finds herself torn between Jim "Sin Killer" Snow, her emotionally (and quite often geographically) distant husband and the father of her only child, and Pomp Charbonneau, the sweet-tempered guide, son of Sacagawea and one of the many real-life historical figures that McMurtry has slipped into this tale.
Tasmin, no shrinking violet, nurses Pomp back to health after an Indian attack, then seduces him. This book has 61 characters, nearly one for every chapter, and none of them express any moral misgivings about "practical copulation," as one character calls it. Or impractical, for that matter. This book is a nonstop romp in all senses of the word.
Much to Tasmin's frustration, Pomp cannot return her passion, for reasons that are left open to interpretation, but there is a sadness that hangs over him that lends the book its title.
"Ma said I was born by sorrow's river," he said. "I seem to carry a weight. It keeps me from being quite like other men."
There's little time to reflect. On this expedition, McMurtry bombards the Berrybenders and the mountain men who guide them with another Indian ambush, this time by overeager youngsters ("There's some whites, let's go kill them"); a smallpox epidemic; a drought; an ambush by slave traders; an arrest by Mexican soldiers; and the arrival, via hot-air balloon, of two insufferable European journalists. And, oh yes, there's also an Indian who slices off ears while their owners are asleep.
McMurtry is so steeped in the history, traditions and voices of the Old West that at times it reads more like he's documenting events rather than imagining them. Who knew that a palfrey's stomach produces a "greenish, frothy, acrid" liquid - the last resort for someone dying of thirst? Anything or anyone that hints of sentimentality - a pet bear cub, for example - is doomed.
The author obviously is having great joy spinning this sprawling tale, but there's a more serious purpose at work here as well. This is a book about desire in all its many forms, from lust to greed, and how that insatiable quest for more, more, more produced a country.
The Partezon, the great Sioux Indian chief, understood: "They would not be satisfied with the beaver; when those were gone they would want the buffalo. They would want everything - the rivers, the holy mountains, everything."
McMurtry has one more novel to test the poor Berrybenders, and to wrap up the dangling plot strands. Hold tight to your ears: What a long, strange, funny, sad and unforgettable trip the finale promises to be.
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. He grew up in an Iowa town called Granger, population 600.