Thursday, August 21, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Argall": Book Review

If "Fathers and Crows" compliments Brian Moore's novel and screenplay for "Black Robe" in its dramatization of native meetings with Europeans, the next installment of Seven Dreams anticipates Terence Malick's "The New World". Based in that settlement of Jamestown, the title of William T. Vollmann's third
"dream" of North American landscapes (unlike that theoretically most common of all names John Smith, the now-Disneyfied Pocahontas, and the generic if evocative name for Malick's film) may attest to the difficulty for a contemporary writer of finding a fresh phrase for this mythologized, romanticized 1607 encounter.

After all, who is Samuel Argall? It's well past a hundred pages of another vast Vollmann-generated Dream before we hear of him. Readers of "Fathers and Crows" met him briefly when he drove French Jesuits out of Acadia. Like Smith, he's a pirate; unlike "Sweet John" (two shipwrecks, ambitious, enslaved by Turks, a reader of Machiavelli, conniving Lincolnshire lad rising from the muck, reliant on luck and pluck) we don't regard him via Vollmann's generous, erudite interpretation.

Instead, we meet the Deputy Governor of Virginia as already slippery. "My servile eyes cannot spot him; he's embodied Absence; he's a fist in a cloud." (108) John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor" and Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" expressed our sensibilities filtered through the antiquated orthography and the idiom of colonial America; Vollmann's channeling of this vernacular compares with his incorporation of Norse sagas and Inuit lore in the first Dream "The Ice-Shirt" and the Jesuit Relations and Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for "Fathers and Crows" but the diction rolls forth smoothly enough. If one can handle Shakespearean English, one can navigate almost 750 pages here.

As before, sly humor leavens density. Young Smith, desperate to leave his muddy environs to serve as a soldier or a sailor, bristles in Lincolnshire. Whiling away time, after losing out on his inheritance, he enters church. "Reverend Sadler sermonizes well, like unto some glib scoundrel in plague-time who turns a dead body out of doors before it's discovered, to keep his house from being sealed up, but Smith doesn't listen. His fancies go a-blobbing for eels." (64-5) The sea calls him. After adventures upon it and on land, fighting for princes and ransomed from the Turk, in 1606 as a captain in his twenty-sixth year Smith sets out for the new colony of Virginia to secure at last his share of fortune.

"Salvages rose up invisibly all around like sprites or unkenned monsters whilst the Adventurers rush'd bewildered." (145) Vollmann captures the tension as the English advance, armed and eager to revenge the loss of the Roanoke settlement to the "Naturalls". Powhatan enters the squalid saga, and John Smith, out of favor and suspected by his fellow captains for subversion given his obstinate attitude as he struggles for promotion, is taken by the enemy chief who took on the name of his tribe.

The mythic meeting of Pocahontas (still prepubescent) and Smith occurs about a third of the way into the main narrative. "Legend being strangled rather than nourished by any abundance of natural fact", the omniscient teller notes how "rapidly" the best sources, Smith and William Strachey, pass over her fabled intervention that saves the captain from the end of his doomed comrades. (225) Drained of the tension between God and gods that found the Wendat/ Huron people "converted safely to destruction" as Vollmann's endnote phrases their fate (706), the scrabbling in "Argall" over no gold, no Northwest Passage, and Smith's ambitions to command authority as he leaves from English fens for Virginian swamps bogs this down in squalor and strife. But that fits. For, martial scuffles here lack supernatural dimensions sought by Jesuits and shamen in "Fathers and Crows". Instead, we endure petty bickering.

Unlike their French Catholic rivals, who for all their zeal attempted to ease the brutality of fellow traders who swept into Canada, the English invaders via Vollmann possess a rapacious attitude that trims the payback for their mission to "rum & quim" given the absence of any precious metals or a Chinese shortcut they have been commissioned to exploit. Paucity makes their long march through these sticky, thinner forests not as vivid, if as dutiful. Powhatan's confident people fear far less their torture and roasting by hordes of sharp-shorn enemies, nor do they construct their sense of honor and exchange on such an intricate culture as do the eternal foes the Huron and the Iroquois. Instead, gruff settlers and natives square off, each armed. Each side expects deceit; each hides its blunt advantage. "We'll remain as your friends, as long as you give us reason to be so." (288) Thus Smith negotiates with Powhatan's neighbors, bringing guns to back up the colonists' request for corn, before terrifying the natives with fireworks. A curt capitalist compact financed by "Undertakers" reduces all to profit.

Finagling his way into the presidency of an increasingly parlous Jamestown, as winters, disease, and famine ravage the settlement, Smith models his brief reign after Machiavelli. Longing to be his own prince, Smith will "Enclose & Adventure anything; he'll flitter from Towne to Towne to get provender for his Colonists, as if he were their Servaunt; he'll wring the Salvages out of their cornfields forever, & drive 'em into the ooze". (303) But, outmaneuvered by rivals, Smith, badly burned, leaves floundering Virginia, never to return. As Governor De La Warre muses: "Amongst alligators, he who denies to bite must lose his watery Kingdome." (395) Under him, Argall, and Thomas Dale, the experiment of self-rule sloughs into despotism, as a scorched earth policy and the fear of starvation or annihilation festers. "Brought into formal unison, the Colonists of James Towne grew changed into sweating beasts whose bare flesh quivers in anticipation of the lash." (396) The novel barely passes its halfway point. The same self-destruction confronts the reader that Vollmann's "Europe Central" conveyed from the Soviet- Nazi showdown: we watch as humans gape at corpses.

Vollmann segues into a delicate rendering of Powhatan's paternal solicitude for the jilted Pocahontas. The author creates a gentler tone, more contemporary in style but evocative of their native mindset, to illustrate this difference from the brusque English. Still, the future darkens as forces realign, for no longer can the nation survive apart from intruders. At her wedding to Kocoum, "her father shattered a roanoke-string upon their heads, so that the white and purple beads came sizzling down". (385) The natives' restive predicament, resenting rapacious foreigners, worsens after Argall's arrival in 1609.

Unwilling to put up with Powhatan's patience, the colonists inflict tribal genocide. A standout chapter details the slaughter of the entirety of Paspahegh-Towne; an endnote credits a fiery speech given by the captain prior to the burning of the village with inspiration from an encomium given to the SS by Heinrich Himmler. Vollmann evokes eerie incongruity as men skewer men, women, and children. Seventy soldiers "ran happily to and fro, like unto a Fire-Brigade compris'd of children". (418)

As Argall exerts his power over Pocahontas, held hostage to force Powhatan's capitulation, Vollmann deepens his investigation of control by systems, one of his career's key concerns. The captain gloats: "With the bread of his authority he'd wipe up all her sauce!" The captive princess mutters, afraid and resentful: "And always the fear of what would happen in the end was with her." (464-5) Knowing the decimation of her neighbors, she shares with her kin the realization that "Sweet John" along with all of the invaders from the East have used her people only for their own gain. She ponders her fate.

Thomas Dale confides in a reverend charged with her conversion, and that of her people. "Tolerate any heathenishness, until all their greatness be crush'd. Then set 'em aright. As soon as we've knocked Powhatan off his feet, we'll raise a Church in e'ery shire." (476) As often in this Third Dream, the colonists, after their coercion of the Irish, use that lesson to impel another indigenous capitulation. As pawns in this imperial game, the princess and her hesitant suitor, tobacco grower John Rolfe, find themselves united. Dressed in European garb, speaking her second language, christened Rebecca, bearing their son Thomas, named after the governor of a Virginia expanding beyond palisades to plantations, Pocahontas rejects her brother-in-law's appeal to run back to her jilted husband Kocoun.

In "Fathers and Crows", Born Underwater repelled Jesuit ministrations while she manipulated Jean de Brébeuf. Her counterpart, Pocahontas, cannot hold out, for she lacks as did her Huron contemporary the protection of a vigilant native husband. Both of their peoples faced decimation after invasion. Giving in as a hostage, she shrinks from the "scorched place" which practically delineates the punishment meted out to her native neighbors, and which symbolically separates her from her new spouse. To regain terrain, she resolves to use the opportunity of a voyage east to appeal to the mercies of a king the equal of Powhatan in her estimation. But 1617 London overwhelms her. Its people eat meat, although they do not hunt. Consumption weakens her. She fails at her presentation to King James and Queen Anne to speak to them on behalf of her people. Mr. and Mrs. Rolfe "went home to the Belle Sauvage Inn. They were o'ertowered by the clucking clocks of Policy". (579)

Implementing policy, Argoll twirls his mustache and acts the role of Jacobean villain masterfully. Like Iago, he shrouds his motives, hiding behind ironic ripostes. Called "Daemon" by Dale, the manipulator of Powhatan, Pocahontas, Smith, and Rolfe "thought 'twas most politick to hold the Yndians firmly as to all their promises, yet flout his own". (608) Treaties matter not, and the tribes give in as did their first representative and exemplar, the little princess when Argall kidnapped her.

However, Vollmann avoids stock heroes and villains. His female protagonist keeps understandably shrewish, and her English husband conveys a mixture of conniving and confusion as his tobacco plantations, guided by his wife's advice, flourish even as their marriage flounders, and their son Thomas finds himself adrift, as in need of patronage and intercession as humble John Smith had and will again. For, the Second Dream ends suddenly, at the funeral of Pocahontas in England.

Smith had met, in this book's telling, her before her death. Coughing into a handkerchief, she turns away from the man she had been told had died. Her husband John affirms to "Sweet John" that she had spoken often of the man whose life she had saved, and this episode, reconstructed by Vollmann from the fragmentary records and enriched by his careful placement of facts within his fiction, deepens the human impact needed to soften the blunt tone of Argall and his menacing minions. All three suffer under that piratical captain's machinations, and Smith's autumnal reflections, on his lost princess and his lost colony as his own demise looms (for he too must beg for preference in vain after his return to England, as he haltingly writes his reports of Virginia), color the Dream's last portions.

Typically, this novel snaps with a steady, satirical lash. "Safely dead, she could never turn against her newfound Countrymen. Didn't that make her the only Yndian of whom such could be said?" (617) "Converted safely to their destruction" as Vollmann says of the Huron, so now for Powhatan's people. They dwindle, laws against miscegenation are passed by 1658, and by Jefferson's time, only remnants of Powhatan's tribe, and many more, can be found in the Commonwealth. Yet Powhatan exterminated a rival tribe. The narrator rationalizes how natives took over their old dominion, similarly brutal. "Don't Salvages themselves tree a bear, then shoot him with an arrow? Don't they run down turkeys without pity? 'Tis but our nature to hunt what we can, to burn every bear out of his den." (643)

Meanwhile, Argall in an aside introduces slavery to Virginia. He lingers long on the stage, and slips away as he arrived, with readers or teller uncertain of his own inner compulsions. Left to relate the fates of all those nations who had met and fought and bred together, Vollmann as in his previous installments of the Dream brings us to the near-present, and places himself within his setting. "Old Virginia's heavy, weary afternoons once surrounded by green and stink now lie bled paper-white by English leechcraft. They live only in the void ground of old books." (658) Through this 2001 novel, Vollmann revives the common ooze of Lincolnshire and London, Jamestown and Chesapeake, and in this thick, sultry landscape he finds a tale as compelling as the Dreams before and after set within ice.

(He reviewed his own novel for the Los Angeles Times. I reviewed this for Amazon US 1-19-14.)

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