The Englishman's Boy

Guy Vanderhaeghe, Author Picador USA $24 (336p) ISBN 978-0-312-16823-0
Having won the Governor General's Award in Canada, this novel comes garlanded with praise, and it's easy to see what the fuss is about. Vanderhaeghe (Man Descending) has a strong narrative sense and a muscular, urgent style. The novel's premise is a good one: a renegade Canadian cowboy, involved in an 1873 Indian massacre as a teenager, 50 years later becomes Shorty McAdoo, a grizzled bit player in pioneer Hollywood, where he catches the imagination of a movie mogul who wants to build an inspiring Western around him--a movie that will deliberately ignore McAdoo's dark secret, which has filled his life with dour guilt. The book proceeds along two tracks. One tells the story of how Shorty became involved with a posse chasing some Indian horse thieves up into Canadian territory, and the grim vengeance that was enacted. The other chronicles the later doings in Hollywood, as told by young screenwriter Harry Vincent. In both stories there is a crisis of conscience; both are driven by ruthless central figures; and there are ironies aplenty. But the tale of the old West is infinitely more gripping and real than the '20s Hollywood material, which is overfamiliar (and in any case sounds echoes of Nathanael West's much more powerful Day of the Locust). The posse leader Hardwick is a figure of genuine menace, but Damon Ira Chance, who runs Harry's studio and sends him off to get Shorty's story, is more elusive, an improbable recluse who goes off into erudite, quasi-Fascist rants about the iron American spirit and the power of the movies. The final confrontation at the premiere of McAdoo's film seems inevitable only in a fictional way; it's nothing like the fierce terror of the massacre and its aftermath. Then, too, the novel is framed by two chapters of facile Indian mysticism that seem foreign to the rest of the tale. Vanderhaeghe is a fine writer, and his work is often fresh and surprising; but on this occasion, all the elements do not quite cohere as they should have. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/01/1997
Release date: 09/01/1997
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Paperback - 978-0-7710-8680-9
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