McMurtry's Berrybenders go full circle

April 25, 2004|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

Folly and Glory, by Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. $25.

Like all births, the creation of the American West was bloody, chaotic, painful and occasionally terrifying. It was not, as Larry McMurtry has reminded us repeatedly throughout his literary career, easy. And it most assuredly was not romantic.

Which brings us to Folly and Glory, the fourth and final installment in what McMurtry calls The Berrybender Narratives, his ambitious epic of the taming of the American West, as seen through the eyes of a dysfunctional family of spoiled British aristocrats.

The grand finale brings what's left of Lord Albany Berrybender's clan and crew to Mexican Santa Fe in the mid-1830s, where they're serving a comfortable house arrest. Having already subjected the hapless Berrybenders and their servants to all manner of man-made and nature-borne horrors, from Indian attacks to blizzards and buffalo stampedes, perhaps McMurtry aims to give his poor characters a breather.

Hardly.

With the Mexican-American war looming, the family is sent on yet another brutal journey, this time across the desert.

Nobody's ever going to convict McMurtry of writing a sentimental word, not when he's willing to kill off 18 characters in one paragraph of a cholera epidemic. Or when a kindly child is roped to a horse by a slave trader and dragged to his death.

Of the four books, this is the darkest and deadliest. Gone, for the most part, are the moments of slapstick farce that tempered the brutality of the first three. Rapes and torture are commonplace now.

Once again, McMurtry has sprinkled in enough real-life characters and events to add verisimilitude. Kit Carson makes a return appearance, and there are cameos by Davy Crockett, Stephen F. Austin and Jim Bowie. In McMurtry's able hands, these aren't simply dashing men from the history books. They are flawed, human and real.

Jim Snow, the mountain man known as the Sin Killer, rescues the few remaining Berrybenders from their captors, escorts them to Texas and exacts his brutal revenge against the slave traders. But his psyche pays a steep price. So does his marriage to Tasmin Berrybender.

Perhaps all episodic narratives eventually lapse into soap opera, but that seems particularly true with this love story. Aside from lust, what binds Jim Snow and Tasmin never feels convincing. As for whether they remain together, McMurtry likely wants us to care more than we do.

McMurtry, who initially seemed gleeful running the boatload of British snobs through an obstacle course of prairie dangers, has apparently grown impressed with his characters' will to survive. Even Lord Berrybender, so addled in the third installment, is granted a small measure of dignity.

Few American authors can make so much happen in a three-page chapter, or guide us through so many different characters and cultures, and yet still explore larger themes. As William Clark, he of the famous expedition, asks here: "Had it been glory, or had it been folly, the unrelenting America push? Were town and farm better than red men and buffalo?"

Now, of course, we wonder if city and suburb are better than town and farm, but that's a tetralogy for another time.

This one ends at the Alamo for some of the characters. The others must choose between home in Britain and this new, unforgiving land. Wherever they go next, they are finally out of McMurtry's clutches. They've earned their rest.

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.

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