Books: The great American picture
THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY by Guy Vanderhaeghe, Doubleday pounds 15.99
Sunday 31 August 1997
He needs a subject, so despatches Vincent to find Shorty McAdoo, a cowboy relic of the lost frontier. There are ex-cowboys all over town, extravagant, camera-friendly caricatures who have come to Hollywood to make easy bucks as extras. But McAdoo is the genuine article, a battle-weary veteran with an extraordinary tale to tell, if only Vincent can prise it from him.
Vincent's pursuit of McAdoo is described in the language of the Hollywood pioneers - bold, sassy and hard-bitten. A parallel narrative unfolds in an expansive, Whitmanesque style, rich with lists and frontier jargon, telling how the Englishman's Boy, a nameless youth, gets bound up in 1873 with a band of wolf-hunters chasing Indians who stole their horses. A third narrative concerns Fine Man, the Assiniboine Native American who steals the horses in response to a dream and leads them through the wild country to his home. Vanderhaeghe's sympathies are with him and his people. The book opens as Fine Man takes up a pinch of dirt, places it under his tongue and prays to Mother Earth to hide him from the wolf-poisoners. But they are asleep like corpses under greasy blankets, having mocked their native faith by pretending to "Say goodnight to Jesus".
Vanderhaeghe's Indians are noble and sophisticated, in tune with their environment and their animals. All that has begun to go wrong with them - drunkenness, loss of spiritual power and territory - can be attributed to the influence of the white man. There is a gruesome spectacle of white "gentlemen" on a paddle steamer firing point blank into a passing herd of buffalo, filling the river with bodies and blood.
Vanderhaeghe sees such white men as the savages. Civilisation cannot endure in their wilderness - the English gentleman whom Shorty serves as gun-carrier gets sick and dies; a Scot who aspires to manners is finally driven mad by the sight of his fellow wolfers devouring the raw meat and blood of a barely dead buffalo; a hapless boy whose horse is too slow is abandoned by his fellow hunters to die in the middle of nowhere. The appalling secret that keeps Shorty McAdoo from telling his story is revealed to be an atrocity committed not by Indians, as Chance hoped, but by whites. Needless to say, that is not how things end in the movie version.
This book is deeply disenchanted with the American dream, and the factory that created it. "Hollywood is supposed to be flowers and flesh, Mack Sennett bathing beauties, Valentinoish males," says Vincent as he surveys the burnt-out compound in which McAdoo takes shelter. "Longing, clinging, beckoning. That is what California is supposed to be. Love, riches, fame, dreams, wild possibility. Not blackened, ruined buildings, a half-starved old man filling himself with sickening sweet canned fruit, ... blind windows and rusted locks, suspended action, the camera crank stuck ..."
Vanderhaeghe is, like Vincent, a Canadian and this book won the 1996 Governor General's Award. The massacre that concludes Shorty's tale led to the creation of the Mounted Police. At the beginning, The Englishman's Boy appears to echo Chance in its ambition to be a Great American Novel. The mogul is not what he seems, however, and neither is the book. Thankfully, its view of the States, and the mythic West, is powerfully Canadian.
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Replica Back to the Future Hoverboard released
- 2 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 3 Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival streaming service criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
- 4 Brixton squat flats now costing up to £3k per month show how out of control rent is in London
- 5 A new (old) cure for MRSA? Revolting recipe from the Dark Ages may be key to defeat infection
Zayn Malik releases first solo song 'I Won't Mind' in 'Zaughty' collaboration with Naughty Boy
Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
Poldark review: Demelza’s insouciance is almost as impressive as Ross’ pecs
Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival streaming service criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans