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'Custer? Who Needs It,' They Told Connell

August 18, 1985|ELIZABETH VENANT

SAUSALITO, Calif. — Lounging at an outdoor eatery, Evan Connell is doing something he hasn't done in years--loitering. Drinking beer, warming in the afternoon sun, watching sailboats swirling in the bay, sea gulls squawking and pillaging plates abandoned on the waterfront tables.

A tall, taciturn man, Connell has spent four years laboring all day, every day of the week. When he tried a brief vacation, he was miserable. When he slept, he dreamed of his work. He was obsessed.

The outcome, "Son of the Morning Star," the story of Gen. George Armstrong Custer's 1876 defeat at Little Bighorn, has become a literary conversation piece, noted for a novelistic rather than an academic approach. It ran on the New York Times' best-seller list for five months this year and the National Book Critics Circle nominated it as one of the five best nonfiction books for 1984. Time magazine reported, "Connell has produced a new American classic." And People magazine flew the author to the Montana battlefield to snap him standing by Custer's tombstone.

Yet just a year ago the general public would have been hard-pressed to identify the writer's name. At 61, Connell has quietly produced 13 previous books, in recent years predominantly essays, short stories and poems. When necessary, he has supported himself by reading utility meters, delivering Christmas packages and, as he puts it, "scratching along year after year." But success in the marketplace was not the author's goal. Says Connell, with the kind of laconic realism he applies to his prose: "Once in a while I do something that corresponds with popular interest."

Nevertheless, the writer has long been recognized in critical circles. His first novel, "Mrs. Bridge," published 26 years ago, attained best-sellerdom, and he has twice had nominations for the National Book Award. At publication of his last book, "The White Lantern," John Leonard noted in the New York Times that Connell "deserves--on the basis of 'Mrs. Bridge' and many other books--more credit as a novelist than we generally give him."

Still, initial reaction to the Custer manuscript was rejection. "Two or three New York publishers looked at it and said, 'Who needs Custer!' " Connell says. The publishing house that bought it, North Point Press in Berkeley, boasts 10 employees and advertises editions printed on acid-free paper.

The pairing of the resolutely literary parties resulted in a West Coast success story: 156,000 hardcover books in print, a $210,000 sale of paperback rights to Harper & Row, which will bring the 422-page book out in October, and an NBC miniseries to be shot this fall.

Says North Point co-chief Jack Shoemaker: "It proved that Western best sellers don't have to be books like 'What Color Is Your Parachute?' "

A Kansas City native who fled to the Bay Area 30 years ago, Connell himself is a consummate Westerner. "Anywhere from the Rockies to the Pacific I feel at home," he says. He prefers high plateaus to people, silence and clear desert light to urban bustle.

During a stint in New York studying art and literature at Columbia University, he blacked out with rage at the mindless hostility of a subway dispute.

Not surprisingly, then, the theme of the Custer book is a 17th-Century graffito by a French deserter from La Salle's expedition: "Nous sommes tous sauvages" (We are all uncivilized).

Yet the author repeatedly comments on the special aggressiveness of America's Indian policy. His voice, usually a murmur, rises to compete with the squawking of the gulls.

"I think this intellectual arrogance has been characteristic of our policy ever since the American Revolution. We started out surrounded by savages, so to speak, and the only way to get what you want, to build farms and cities, is to go out and blow the savages away. And we're still doing it. Reagan's ready to attack Nicaragua. I find it outrageous. They're not threatening us in any way. I was enraged by the Vietnam War, which was the same thing."

The son of a mannered Mrs. Bridge-like matron and a surgeon who watched over his family "like a soldier assigned to guard a camp," Connell is gentle and courtly, and has no interest in meeting the warlike Custer. "I think he was probably a very obnoxious man to be around."

Yet the general has remained embedded in the national psyche. "He was a flamboyant individualist and I think we have a tradition of thinking of ourselves that way," says Connell. "We've always thought we were capable of accomplishing anything, given a few trusting men behind us."

This morning a reporter from the Wall Street Journal telephoned Connell for comments on a resurgence of interest in Custer. "I didn't know there was a resurgence," Connell reports in his matter-of-fact manner.

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