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Footrace With Generic Indians : THE FAST MEN by Tom McNab (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 345 pp.)

May 22, 1988|Gerald Vizenor | Vizenor has just won an American Book Award for his novel "Griever: An American Monkey King in China" (Fiction Collective)

Billy Joe Speed would remember the Day of the Doughnut, 7 June 1873, declares the narrator of this ironic novel, as the time his life changed from drovers and beeves to running shoes.

Swampy Wood made his famous cowboy doughnuts on the day Billy Joe won his first footrace with a horse. "Every town's got its Fast Man, Billy Joe. We could live off the fatheads of the land." And so he does with various managers and misadventures in England and the American West.

"The Fast Men" was first published in Great Britain two years ago. Tom McNab, an American who lives in England, is the author of "Flanagan's Run." An expert on running, or "pedestrianism" as the practice was known in the 19th Century of this novel, the author was a consultant to the movie, "Chariots of Fire."

McNab has invented a new and unusual American West. An invention because yucca does not grow naturally on the Great Plains; new because there have been few stories written about Western runners; and unusual because he seems to know so little about tribal cultures. The author leans too much on the "savagism and civilization" theme, a common enough Western myth, but when the Sioux shoot arrows at yucca in the Black Hills, the ironies dissolve in absurdity.

McNab's stories are hilarious; the runners, the diversions and entertainments in frontier towns, are the stuff of folklore and the Wild West shows at the turn of the century. The racialism, however, is a burden to the ironic pitch and wild bloom of the narrative.

The novel begins with White Wolf, an anomalous Sioux, who would "remember the day the madmen came to the valley." Billy Joe and Buck Miller were the madmen; runners with no weapons. They are "led through the encampment, to the whooping of the warriors and the screaming of the women, who struck at them with branches as they passed, while the camp dogs snapped at their feet." McNab raises a "savage" silhouette with no sarcasm or deprecation; an invitation to ironies, but the author is neither naive nor sophisticated about the invention of his unusual tribe. The tribal scenes are synthetic, neither tragic nor comic, as if the author had described a television movie. The two runners sat "in the heat of the midday sun" with their hands tied. Some tribal women poked them with sticks and others giggled. The elders, Swift Dog, Dark Cloud, Black Moon, Hollow Stone, and other racial silhouettes, "sat round the camp-fire in conference," as tribal men do in the movies, no matter the season or temperature.

McNab reveals a rich and wild imagination when he runs with his characters and encounters familiar historical figures, such as John Wilkes Booth, Gen. George Custer, Phineas T. Barnum, Gov. Leland Stanford, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge. The underestimations and new intersections on the frontier are ironic; however, the author has not done his research on tribal cultures. He imposes the "Great Manitou," a spirit from the woodland cultures, on the Sioux, as if spiritual identities were derived from the same labels. Ironic intentions do not absolve duplicitous racialism.

Two curious tribal women seduce the bound runners, true to the fantasies of white males: "The girl pulled off her buckskin dress in one movement, revealing in the shadows a stocky, nut-brown body and firm, pointed breasts." The white runners were "big medicine."

Buck and Billy Joe won their freedom in a dubious tribal race to the edge of a cliff and waiting horses. Later, but no wiser, the runners are jailed for their part in a scam to beat local pedestrians. "The country is simply becoming too small for such deceptions," a woman wrote in her diary, "and there is a limit to the disguises which Buck and Billy Joe can effectively employ."

The novel ends with a complicated and ludicrous race to settle a dispute over a stretch of water. "They could've seen it settled in a violent fashion, guns brought in from outside, good men killed, good women widowed long before their time. But they didn't," said the town judge. "They decided to settle it not with guns but with a foot-race. . . . I truly believe it's the start of modern times."

Charles Russell, the cowboy painter, noted that "Laugh kills lonesome." McNab hastens his white characters into ironies, the laughs of modern times over the past. White Wolf, however, is trapped in the first sentence of this novel with his remembrance of "the day the madmen came to the valley."

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