Friday, 22 January 2016
The Revenant, by Michael Punke
Having turned up for a 4.00 showing of The Revenant last Sunday and finding it to be inconveniently sold out, I thought it gave me a nice lull in which to read the book on which the (probably Oscar winning) film is based.
The Revenant is the story of the apparently indestructible Hugh Glass- sailor, pirate, survivor. A veteran frontiersman currently in the employ of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Glass finds himself in a band of trappers led by Captain Anderson. One of Anderson's best and most trusted men, Glass is savagely mauled by a bear on the banks of the Grand River when stalking game for the campfire. Like any good boss, Anderson attempts to haul the apparently mortally wounded Glass to their months-away destination of Yellowstone before Winter sets in. After a couple of days and knowing that it was never going to work, Anderson admits defeat, leaving two of his party behind to wait for his man to die so that they can give him a decent burial. They do not wait. Glass does not die. Instead, they take his beaded knife, his fire-making kit and his beloved rifle and scarper, fearful of the various tribes of Natives that hunt and patrol the area.
The rest of the book is Glass’ slow, agonising recovery and his single-minded pursuit of his deserters and his only meaningful possessions across most of the unchartered blank spaces on the map. Riding when he can ride, rafting when he can raft, walking when he can do neither and crawling when he can’t even do that. He experiences good fortune at the hands of some native tribes, and suffers bloodthirsty attacks from members of others- he’s an adaptable kind of guy, falling in with various groups and various brigades on his travels, always in pursuit. He hunts. He traps. He suffers. Ohmygod does he suffer. Although- he doesn’t really seem to be affected by his own suffering. He never complains, never gives up, never slows down or thinks about his suffering. Just another day of surviving on the frontier.
Despite the silence of his character and his unbelievable intensity, the reader can’t help but admire Glass as a character, if only for his resolve and his unwavering focus. So he’s not particularly emotional. We learn he has no family, no wife, no kids. He has no apparent aspirations or fears. He’s lived a life for sure, and doesn't seem particularly fazed by any downward trajectories that his fortune takes. He is Grit personified. All we can do is sort of watch in baffled awe as this guy who by all rights should be dead about 6 times over walk away from yet another near-fatal situation.
Apparently Michael Punke is primarily a non fiction writer, and once you know this, it's very evident in his prose. His writing is functional and no fuss- he is telling his story in plain English, as it happened and in a style as economic and straightforward as possible. Punke's prose is an un-beautiful, as stoic and as no-nonsense as his protagonist. Glass is struck at one point by the beauty of the Rocky Mountain and has a little moment to himself. The description isn't particularly staggering, but Glass’s reaction is noteworthy, seeing as he’s a man who appears to feel nothing.
It’s not an exciting book, but it’s quite satisfying following Glass’ progress along the river- first to his compromise goal, then to his short term goal, then to what he believes to be his final destination. It’s hard for a modern reader to imagine the danger of the wilderness; death comes via the wildlife, the weather, the natives, the exposure, the hunger, or through mistakes and through accidents. It's hard to imagine too is the beauty of unspoilt America, knowing what becomes so shortly. I'm a sucker for a frontier story- even though this is not a particularly descriptive book, the plains are laid before you implicitly, the buffalo, the creeks, the pines. Love it.
I really enjoyed reading this and I'm glad I got the change to experience the novel before the film. It reminded me a little of John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing, with its detailed descriptions of how to field dress a doe or skin a buffalo so the hide comes off in one piece and in general the focus on the fur trade of American settlers. I feel like I could probably skin a buffalo adequately, should the proper necessity ever arise. It’s also reminiscent of True Grit, by Charles Portis as there’s something of Matty Ross’ stony faced and unwavering desire for vengeance.
Enjoyed it. Would recommend.