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The Deadly Circus Rolls On

McMurtry's Brits in the Wild West tetralogy, Pt. 2

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After making their way from the Knife River, where the steamer Rocky Mount has been abandoned, to the confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone, the dyspeptic aristocrats known as the Berrybenders have settled in for a long winter in the West.One night during dinner, a grizzled mountain man named Hugh Glass bursts into a less-than-idyllic gathering at the trading post. Described as "tall, gaunt, furious, snow in his hair and beard, and murder in his eyes," Glass tries to maim a couple of fellow trappers, a fit of revenge stemming from his abandonment during a grizzly bear attack.

And so begins The Wandering Hill, the second book in a tetralogy begun by Larry McMurtry last year. The first installment, Sin Killer, introduced Lord Berrybender and his cranky, selfish, quarrelsome coterie of children, servants and hangers-on. Sort of like putting the Osbournes next to the Utes, the Blackfeet and the Sioux, with claret substituting for Pepsi Twist.

The British clan has arrived in the American West in 1832, beginning a four-year journey of hunting expeditions, bungled plans, death by misadventure as well as misstep, and assorted other episodes that both reinforce and shatter the Western myth.

McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove, picks up the thread of the first novel and immediately offers a characteristic lack of sentimentality and nostalgia.

The protagonists remain ambivalent if often fervid lovers: Jim Snow, a fundamentalist known as the Sin Killer for his righteous repudiation of profanity and other amoral activities, and his wife, Tasmin Berrybender, the tart-tongued eldest daughter of Lord Berrybender.

Despite imminent motherhood, Tasmin hasn't mellowed. After her father boasts of his favorite appendage during a typically audacious dinnertime chat, Tasmin, with savage dexterity, demonstrates how flaccid such ruminations are.

"I hardly see why you should be so proud of a mere prick," she tells him. "All it's got you is a collection of violent brats and bitches. . ."

Berrybender, a self-indulgent man with little regard for others, is falling apart physically and mentally. So far, he's lost one leg, seven toes and three fingers through various ordeals, mostly self-inflicted. His wife, Constance, is dead, forcing him to foist himself upon a cellist, Venetia Kennet, and, later, the family laundress.

Much dirty laundry is aired throughout the book. Sexual alliances are varied, and ever-changing. It often mirrors the violence: senseless, sudden and inexplicable.

During their winter at the trading post, the Berrybenders and members of their traveling party give birth to three babies. Jim Snow is a trapper who fears being trapped by a domineering British wife and an extended family more poisonous than the Montagues and Capulets combined.

Those with acute familiarity in the wilderness take note, on several occasions, of a peripatetic hill. According to legend, it's inhabited by short, fierce devils who kill travelers with deadly arrows. The little devils never appear, but mayhem and malice accompany the wandering hill, much as bravado and browbeating accompany Donald Rumsfeld's press conferences.

Early on, Tasmin offers a blunt assessment of her clattering siblings, servants and, yes, her father. "We Berrybenders just happen to be a noisy lot -- forthright in our appetites, too."Of course, one person's haute cuisine is another's abomination. When Lord Berrybender's son, Bobbety, evinces an affinity for Father Geoffrin, the notion of homosexual leanings appalls the patriarch.

With a large meat fork in hand, Berrybender lunges in an attempt to stab the Jesuit priest. Instead, Berrybender's fork finds Bobbety, who is leaning over to whisper something to his companion.

"It was no gentle thrust, either -- when Lord Berrybender withdrew the fork, Bobbety's eye came with it," McMurtry writes.

One of the most endearing characters is Pomp Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea. Born in the wilderness and educated in Europe, he bridges these disparate worlds with all the thoughtfulness and philosophical longing that the Berrybenders lack.

More than anyone, Pomp recognizes the short life span of the wilderness. He laments its passing, but realizes little, if anything, can be done to save it. By the end of this novel, Tasmin will realize how endearing such an understated man of integrity can be.

The rest of the characters, on the other hand, evince a steady stream of human folly. Vanity and pride lead to their destruction, or the destruction of others.

McMurtry proves masterly when writing about the Indians. Their English is clumsy, but not in the silly manner of, say, Tonto. Just as the whites are hampered by internecine feuds, petty jealousies and insecurities, so, too, are the chiefs, the squaws, the tribes.

Blue Thunder, a Piegan Blackfoot, has visited the President and spent time aboard the steamer with the Berrybenders. Trudging back to his tribe, Blue Thunder despairs over what he's seen and learned.

The whites, he reflects, are a tribe as large as ants or lice. Their guns, their ships, their strength in numbers, all reflected the imminent passing of the Blackfeet. If he had stayed on his land and not ventured away, Blue Thunder might never have learned those painful truths.

"He didn't intend, though, to tell this to the people of his band -- not even to the elders," McMurtry writes. "There was no point in disturbing the old ones, whose lives would end before they had to witness too much change."

As for the Berrybenders, by the end of The Wandering Hill, they, too, have witnessed much change. But will any of what they've seen change the Berrybenders? Soon McMurtry will offer the answer, but not before a lot more carnage -- and carnival -- thunders past.

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