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Apaches: A NOVEL by Oakley Hall (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 442 pp.)

August 10, 1986|Tony Hillerman | Hillerman's most recent novel is "The Ghostway" (Harper & Row). and

In Chapter 1, it's quickly obvious that Patrick Cutler, brave-but-unorthodox lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry, is our hero, and the bad guy is an inept and cowardly major. It seems Oakley Hall has given us another of those Westerns based on the "Apache Wars" and used the usual plot. But Hall is not the usual novelist. He has written a memorable book.

In Chapter 7 comes awareness that Hall is not just replowing the much-plowed field of cavalry versus Indians. He also is using an even more familiar epic of the West--the Lincoln County War. His Martin Turnbull can only be Tunstall, that odd Englishman whose murder strained U.S. relations with Great Britain. Johnny Angell is Billy the Kid, subject of a thousand bad books. Penn McFall is John Chisholm. Anyone vaguely familiar with this American tragedy can spot the other players.

My personal period of interest in the Lincoln County War ended about 25 years ago, and my fascination with the incredible feats of the Apaches peaked about 1975. But early in this novel, I found both at fever pitch again. Hall has a knack for giving historical characters personalities that are credible and interesting: Their faces, quirks, habits and attitudes make them seem as genuine as friends and relatives. He does this in scenes that illuminate both the characters and the incidents. For example, we first meet many key participants at a party in the little frontier town of Madison. McFall (Chisholm) is telling all who will listen the story of his life:

"And in the lamp-lit room with McFall's great shadow lurching and gesturing against the walls, Cutler saw Johnny Angell miming the exaggerated movements--hands raised with McFall's to illustrate that terrible hailstorm; or bent tenderly to tend the dying brother. . . . Johnny's small, handsome face was intense with concentration, and, as McFall's deep voice deepened and the pulse of the action resounded, the mimicry became more graceful, like some Oriental dance. Cutler realized he was observing not one but two precious bits of frontier art." It is proof of Hall's art that I am quickly willing to abandon my own long-held notions of these historic personages and replace them with his.

Norm Zollinger, another talented novelist recently attracted by the doomed courage of the Apaches, took the plot of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" and recast its Romans with settlers and its Goths with Victorio's Apache warriors. Then he bent history to fit the classic plot and wrote his "Corey Lane" as a sort of poetic epic tragedy of the West. In this gripping novel, Oakley Hall takes history as it is and converts it into art by making its personages live in the imagination.

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