cover image The Dying Grass

The Dying Grass

William T. Vollmann. Viking, $55 (1376p) ISBN 978-0-670-01598-6

The Nez Perce War of 1877 lies at the center of Vollmann’s epic new novel, the fifth volume in his series Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, and the first since 2001’s Argall. Not surprisingly, given its length, it also offers a panoramic view of the era and the decades leading up to it. Seventy-plus years of abuse toward the Nez Perce are stingingly presented in a chapter of quotations from famous Americans of the time period. Vollmann’s prose is evocative and often lyrical, trailing down the pages like free verse. Scores of characters in different but interconnected settings contribute to a tapestry, much like that of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. In the spring of 1877, General Oliver Howard is viewing a “city of tents” called The Dalles, formerly a Native American stronghold and bazaar for various tribes. Howard becomes the nominal protagonist, more accurately the book’s linchpin, as the war proceeds on multiple fronts. By July, what has been projected as an easy fight becomes a nightmare of small skirmishes against the resourceful Nez Perce, led by Howard’s archenemy Chief Joseph. He and his tribesmen call the Americans bluecoats. Ultimately, the superior resources of the U.S. Army prevail, in a war of attrition hastened by infighting among the tribes. To his credit, Volllman is as interested in context and history as in storytelling. Almost 200 pages of notes, maps, and background documents follow the narrative proper, encouraging a deeper read. This massive novel is sometimes challenging, but ultimately rewarding. Agent: Susan Golomb, Writers House. (July)