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Book Review: The Revenant

By (January 1, 2015) No Comment

The Revenantrevenant cover

by Michael Punke

Picador, 2015

Picador reprints Michael Punke’s very effective historical novel The Revenant a shall we say generous interval before the film adaptation is slated to appear next winter, but that’s undoubtedly just as well; the book deserves a hearing on its own considerable merits, rather than being seen as an adjunct marketing detail of a $100 million dollar movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and a CGI bear.

The Revenant, which first appeared in 2002, tells a fairly simple story. In the year 1823, a ‘regiment’ of fur trappers working the Grand River on the Upper Missouri is facing the usual touch-and-go existence of operators in enemy territory. The eleven men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, under the command of Captain Andrew Henry must kill and salt enough meat to enable them to survive the coming winter, but every gunshot they risk can be heard for miles and might attract the attention of touchy, belligerent natives like the Arikawa or the Sioux. Captain Henry’s men are a mixed bunch, ranging from a callow but well-intentioned boy named Jim Bridger to a brutish mercenary named John Fitzgerald – and also featuring Hugh Glass, a quiet, authoritative frontiersman whom Captain Henry considers his only true colleague on the expedition.

Glass is out scouting for the party at the novel’s beginning when he encounters two frolicking bear cubs and needs only a split instant to realize what comes next (encountering frolicking bear cubs being just about the worst thing that can happen to a hiker short of tripping and falling face-first into a nest of rattlesnakes):

The growl crescendoed as she stepped into the clearing, black eyes staring at Glass, head low to the ground as she processed the foreign scent, a scent now mingling with that of her cubs. She faced him head-on, her body coiled and taut like the heavy spring on a buckboard. Glass marveled at the animal’s utter muscularity, the thick stumps of her forelegs folding into massive shoulders, and above all the silvery hump that identified her as a grizzly.

Glass has a powerful rifle but only about fifteen seconds in which to use it. He gets off one shot, expertly hitting the bear right in the heart – a mortal wound she ignores just long enough to maul Glass so badly that when the men of his company find him buried under the dead bear’s weight, they assume he’s dead, or will die momentarily.

He doesn’t. Despite horrifying, near-paralyzing wounds, he stubbornly keeps on breathing. Captain Henry orders his men to outfit a litter, and the company begins the long, slow trek of carrying Glass to the nearest U.S. fort. It quickly becomes apparent that such a brutal portage isn’t going to work and stands a good chance of getting the whole company discovered by hostile natives. This puts Captain Henry – a basically good but weak man – squarely on the horns of a dilemma, and unlike most of his fairly dimwitted men, he understands the underlying ethics involved:

He knew that leadership required him to make tough decisions for the good of the brigade. He knew that the frontier respected – required – independence and self-sufficiency above all else. There were no entitlements west of St. Louis. Yet the fierce individuals who comprised his frontier community were bound together by the tight weave of collective responsibility. Though no law was written, there was a crude rule of law, adherence to a covenant that transcended their selfish interests. It was biblical in its depth, and its importance grew with each step into the wilderness. When the need arose, a man extended a helping hand to his friends, to his partners, to strangers. In so doing, each knew that his own survival might one day depend upon the reaching grasp of another.

He decides to leave two men to carry on transporting Glass while he forges ahead with the rest of the company (the grim prevailing hope is that the two men will only have to stay behind briefly, to wait for Glass to die and then give him a proper burial). The two who volunteer to stay behind are young Bridger – and Fitzgerald, who claims he’s only doing it for the cash bonus Henry offers.

Once free from the observation of the others – and with only a young innocent for company – Fitzgerald quickly decides to abandon Glass to his fate. Glass, just conscious enough to know what’s happening but still virtually immobilized, is filled with an incandescent rage at being left for dead … and just as economically as that, a neat little Sergio Leone Western is set in motion. Wounded man must cling to life and survive in the wilderness in order to exact vengeance upon those who wronged him.

Punke handles it all with an uncluttered finesse that’s the best weapon for somebody dealing in such predictable fare. He slowly, steadily expands the story as Glass gains strength and clarity of thought, and at every stage of the narrative, the descriptions of harsh frontier beauties and perils are grippingly immediate. Readers of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (or Dead Man’s Walk, which likewise features a rampaging grizzly) will curl up to The Revenant like cats to warm milk; they get laconic, hyper-capable good guys, bad guys who flout biblical covenants, and ravening one-ton metaphors for the unpredictable grandeur of the wilderness. And as for that DiCaprio movie, well, if Hugh Glass can survive his ordeal, who are we to complain?