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Once Upon a Time in the West

THE RETURN OF LITTLE BIG MAN;\o7 By Thomas Berger; (Little, Brown: 448 pp., $25)\f7

May 16, 1999|ALLEN BARRA | Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

"The North American western," sniffed Jorge Luis Borges in his 1971 "An Introduction to American Literature," "is a tardy and subordinate genre" in which the hero is invariably limited to the profession of "sheriff or rancher." Borges, of course, was referring to genre westerns such as those written by the world's best-selling author, Louis L'Amour. Unbeknownst to Borges--and, amazingly, to the last three decades of American literary critics--the American western grew up a long time ago.

Charles Portis' "True Grit"; Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove"; Pete Dexter's novel of Wild Bill Hickock's last days, "Deadwood"; Ron Hansen's Jesse James and Dalton Brothers' sagas, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "Desperadoes"; Robert Taylor's story of a peripatetic teenager, "The Travels of Jamie McPheeters"; Susan Dodd's novel about Jesse James' mother, "Mamaw"; Cormac McCarthy's modern westerns and his ultra-violent fable, "Blood Meridian"; N. Scott Momaday's "The Ancient Child"; Daniel Woodrell's "Woe to Live On"; to say nothing of such genre benders as Michael Ondaatje's book-length poem, "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" and Robert Coover's phantasmagorical western "Ghost Town," to name just a few, all feature characters who are neither sheriffs nor ranchers.

In fact, sheriff and rancher are about the only two occupations Jack Crabb, hero of Thomas Berger's seminal 1964 novel "Little Big Man" and now "The Return of Little Big Man," has never gotten into. Among other things, he was a mule skinner, buffalo hunter, snake oil salesman, Indian scout, gunfighter and even a Northern Cheyenne brave. He was also the only white survivor of Custer's Last Stand. That is, he was all those things, as his editor Ralph Fielding Snell phrased it in the foreword to "Little Big Man," as well as "a liar of insane proportion" and "the foulest-mouthed individual of whom I have ever had experience."

When a definitive study of the modern American western novel is written, it will undoubtedly be found that the renaissance in that unjustly maligned genre is traceable to "Little Big Man." Berger's great novel was a classic picaresque--hence the nod to Henry Fielding in the name of Jack's editor--and an American tall tale, more vast in scope than anything conceived by even Mark Twain. Orphaned at 10 by Cheyennes on a whiskey tear, Jack was raised by Indians but states, "I am a white man and never forgot it." Traveling across the West and moving back and forth between the two cultures, Jack had a cutaway view of the frontier at its wildest period in the 1870s. Old friends and acquaintances disappeared and reappeared with Dickensian regularity, often under different names and guises--for what is the point of the West if not to reinvent oneself? The most legendary figures of the Old West cross his paths, from Wild Bill Hickock (he "was never himself a braggart. He didn't have to be. Others did it for him") to Wyatt Earp ("when he looked at you as if you were garbage, you might not have agreed with him, but you had sufficient doubt to stay your gun hand") to George Armstrong Custer, whose death at Little Big Horn he would eventually witness.

When last heard from, Jack was winding down in an Old Pioneers' Home, age (perhaps) 111. If Berger's new instant classic, "The Return of Little Big Man," is evidence, Jack didn't die there but escaped to get away from the avaricious Snell. He had, it appears, a great many more stories to tell about his years on the frontier, from the inside story of the death of Wild Bill (Jack was supposed to be watching his back) to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (a drunken Doc Holliday started it all) to the murder of Sitting Bull. To fill the enormous hole left by Hickock's death, Berger has Jack hook up with another legend, an amiable, bowler-topped gunslinger who turns out to be Bat Masterson. Jack and Bat descend on Dodge City, at the height of its cow-town glory. In Dodge, Jack gets "buffaloed" again by, of course, Wyatt Earp; sees the lovely dance hall madam Dora Hand slain by a stray bullet; and finally makes contact with his old tribe at the tail end of the Cheyenne Autumn uprising, which leads to a job as a translator at a school for Cheyenne youths. (A Cheyenne boy's question to an Army officer, "How is it you have so much hair on your face but none on the top of your head, where it belongs?" is translated by Jack as "We thank you for the opportunity, we are eager to learn as much as we can.")

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