Books: The great American picture

THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY by Guy Vanderhaeghe, Doubleday pounds 15.99
Harry Vincent, a young title-writer in 1920s Hollywood, is summoned one night to meet his reclusive boss, Damon Ira Chance, a mogul with a mission. Chance is a disciple of D W Griffith, the grandiloquent director credited with inventing the visual language of cinema. Chance is disenchanted with the "chocolate-coated kitsch" being served up by his fellow film- makers, and dreams of creating the Great American Picture.

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.