Sunday, February 22, 2015

Michael Punke's "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge": Review

Attacked by a grizzly, soon after left to die as his fellow trappers flee an attack by natives, forced to crawl and scoot along to escape capture, Hugh Glass' epic story of survival led him through the winter of 1823-1824 across much of the Great Plains. He forced himself on across two-hundred miles of frozen frontier to the nearest fort. There, he recovered enough to continue his pursuit of the two men who had abandoned him and who had stolen his knife and his rifle. Michael Punke's The Revenant dramatizes true events. They lend themselves to a vivid storyline. This reissue, after the novel's release in 2002, presages this autumn's film adaptation now being shot in Alberta, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, directed by Alejandro Inarritu.

Punke, a Wyoming-raised and Montana-based law professor when he published this, is now an ambassador to the World Trade Organization. Having written two histories of the West, he uses harsh and vast settings well. He adapts the frontier enterprise of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, as he notes in an afterword, to highlight the plot potential in trapper-tracker Glass' tale. The opening scenes as Glass fends off the bear encourage vivid imagery. Slashed across his back, his leg and arm battered, his throat punctured, Glass' scalp is nearly torn away. "The skin was so loose that it was almost like placing a fallen hat on a bald man."

However, the author prefers an unadorned style. Such descriptions as just quoted are rare. Instead, the stolid personality of dogged Glass dominates this book. Punke prefers a spare quality, fitting the torment and loneliness of Glass. Having previously survived press-ganging by pirate Jean Lafitte and then escape into Texas where Glass was taken in for a year by the Pawnee, he hunkers down, bent on survival. Skinning a rattler, fending off wolves to grab his share of a freshly killed lamb, improvising a trap for mice to roast, he cannot yet walk. This predicament energizes his desperation after he is left to fend for himself, hiding from the Arikara, in pain and alone on the prairie as the cold season closes in. Punke integrates his research on survival skills, and this material matches the rugged backdrop.

As the subtitle emphasizes, Glass seeks revenge. "He vowed to survive, if for no other reason than to visit vengeance on the men who betrayed him." But Glass, in Punke's portrayal, seems more eager to outlast the frigid conditions than to mull over his fate. Reduced to rags, pitted against the weather, Glass keeps our interest more by his cunning than his character. He lacks an ability in Punke's understated mood to explore what may lurk inside Glass. So, the reader finds interest more in how to make a fire in a blizzard, why Glass helps an old, blind Arikara woman left by herself in an ravaged village, or what happens when two Shoshone boys out for a hunt stumble upon Glass later in his trek.

Glass is not given to elaboration. On meeting the voyageurs who will ferry him to a fort for healing, he sums up his back story in full. "Big grizzly attacked me on the Grand. Captain Henry left John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger behind to bury me when I died. They robbed me instead. I aim to recover what's mine and to see justice done." That is it. His listeners, ready for a long night's yarn, are baffled.

So might we be. But seen mainly through Glass' eyes, little of the landscape registers, save what signals threat, nourishment, movement, ease, or endurance. "The colder weather settled into Glass' wounds the way a storm creeps up a mountain valley." That phrase seems more Punke's in its occasional embellishment than it does one emanating from terse Glass. However, later in his journey, as he sees peaks rising beyond Yellowstone River, "there was a sense of sacrament that flowed from the mountains like a font, an immortality that made his quotidian pains seem inconsequential".

Near the conclusion, Glass ponders the vistas he will soon turn away from as he loops back from his vantage point of the Rockies. "He searched for Orion, dominant on the eastern horizon, Orion the hunter, his vengeful sword poised to strike." Punke integrates this symbol into the last chapters of his novel, and the situation Glass finds himself in as he pursues revenge lingers, as if in biblical lessons.

This review itself remains rather evasive, to avoid spoilers. The implicit tension of watching Glass as he forces himself back to health and pushes himself along in nearly unbelievable situations remains. Despite Punke's tendency to shy away from some of the questions one may ask about Glass' inner self, the author conveys in this book's best moments a relentless energy that infuses this primal saga.
(Amazon US 2-9-15 and PopMatters 2-18-15)

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