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Saddle Up And Ride

The Western renewed


Much like baseball, the Western, whether as a movie genre or a literary one, is continually mourned as a fading relic with little hope of long-term survival. And yet, just as disgruntled fans become enamored with the erstwhile national pastime each October, the Western manages to rekindle its admirers' hearts even as it is diminished. The cowboy shoot-'em-up is periodically reinvented in Hollywood, though more as homage than trailblazing movement. For those seeking horse operas bearing literary dash, Larry McMurtry, during the course of a lengthy career, has offered a steady stream of novels that both shatter and affirm the lore of America's frontier days. Now, as McMurtry prepares to wrap up a Western tetralogy chronicling the exploits of an aristocratic British family traveling the region's harsh climes, a new voice has arrived.

It belongs to Guy Vanderhaeghe, a Canadian writer whose most recent novel, The Last Crossing, has just been published in America, two years after it became a bestseller in Canada.

Much as McMurtry's recent novels have done, The Last Crossing plays with the notion of strangers in a strange land. Echoing McMurtry's raucous Berrybenders, The Last Crossing employs a wealthy, unhappy British family, thrown together along the Missouri River. In Vanderhaeghe's novel, the aptly named Gaunt family is transported from Victorian England to Montana and beyond into Canada's Northwest Territories.

Simon Gaunt, the family idealist, disappears in a Montana blizzard, prompting his father, an ornery British industrial baron, to send Simon's brothers in search of him. The incident occurs while Simon is with the Rev. Witherspoon as part of a mission to convert Indians in the New World.

Simon's twin brother, Charles, is a disillusioned artist who often stifles his emotions. The eldest sibling, Addington, is a failed military captain with a violent, selfish heart and a nasty case of syphilis. In the 1870s, they arrive in Montana where the Gaunts' speech, fashion and wealth make them obvious outsiders.

Vanderhaeghe draws his ensemble cast with muscular prose, which often snaps along in pitch-perfect rhythm. He's not bad with an analogy, either.

"A boom town," Vanderhaeghe writes, "draws rogues like a jam jar draws wasps."

The novelist keeps the story front and center, ladling out artful sentences and phrases. He's also done his homework on period details, from topography to ballistics to numerous historical oddities. Flashbacks, as well as alternating narrators, keep the story moving; it begins in earnest when Charles and Addington arrive in Montana and assemble a search party.

It includes Caleb Ayto, a shiftless journalist hired to record the trek -- and glorify Addington's exploits. Jerry Potts, a half-Blackfoot, half-Scot, signs on as the party's guide, leading them north, where Simon Gaunt was traveling when he disappeared. They're joined by Lucy Stoveall, who is on a mission to find the men who killed her sister and exact revenge. Lucy's presence attracts Custis Straw, a crusty Civil War veteran-turned-horse trader who drowns himself in whiskey and laudanum when he's not mooning over Lucy. Finally, the saloonkeeper, Custis' close friend, Aloysius Dooley, follows Custis into the wilderness to join the Gaunts' traveling party. Everyone on the caravan is in search of something or someone. Lucy, a spirited beauty, natch, upsets the men's equilibrium. Charles, like Custis, falls hopelessly in love with her, giving Addington sadistic pleasure in taunting both over their soft hearts. Dooley dubs the caravan little more than "a game of fox and hounds."

Once the party sets out, the narrative axles bog down in historical diversion. If most of these wanderings are superfluous to plot advancement, they're nonetheless entertaining. The dialogue shimmers, as well. In a fit of recollection, Custis conjures advice offered by a musketry instructor on marksmanship: "Mister, squeeze that trigger like your lady's nipple. Just hard enough to get results, but not hard enough to make her jump."

Well-rendered, if familiar, episodes follow: The struggle to survive the elements, encounters with grizzly bears, a devastated Indian village plagued by smallpox. Each member of the traveling party confronts personal demons and fears along the way -- it's a horrid cliche, but, this being a Western, we're going to allow it. The Last Crossing is best enjoyed for the scenery and the ambling ride; there's nothing faulty with its resolution, but it's the pacing and wagonloads of vivid description that make it a keeper.

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