Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thomas Berger: Little Big Man

The cover shows an Apache man,
though the book famously depicts
the Cheyenne. Photo is by Edward Curtis.
I'm doing an essay on the anti-Western Western novels of the 1960's and 1970's, mainly focusing on the latter decade. I read earlier Ishmael Reed's The Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down, which I really couldn't get into, though reading some articles about it helped a bit. It was funny enough at times. Yesterday I finished a more famous novel, Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964) that's known also - actually better - as a movie by Arthur Penn, starring Dustin Hoffman. Neither of the books have ever been translated in Finnish, which is a pity.

This was a great novel, epic in scope, hilarious in execution, though it's actually never laugh-out funny, though I remember the film being very funny. Maybe I didn't catch every meaning or phrase. As everyone knows, I'm sure, what happens in the course of the book, I won't go into there, so here are instead some observations. 

Little Big Man should be included in the canon of postmodern novels. Berger uses a framing device in which a young scholar named Ralph Fielding Snell who studies American Indian culture gets to meet 121-year old Jack Crabb, whom he interviews in length. I think that's basically a postmodern narrative device, and actually a bit reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov, especially when Fielding Snell's voice is a bit stuffy. 

Jack Crabb then again is a different animal. He narrates his own story in a vernacular language that's all the time slightly off, he uses "says" and "said" in a same paragraph, and words like "knowed". With this, Berger gives him a particular voice, he's intelligent, though not educated. Crabb is also an unreliable narrator. There are moments when the reader begins to suspect this, though Crabb always comes off sincere. Fielding Snell then adds a short epilogue in which he says he thinks Crabb may not have told him a true story. Really? This is interesting, since it also gives the novel a postmodern aura. Maybe nothing in the book ever took place. It's still a great story, worth telling. (Jack Crabb's voice also makes me think this book has affected Joe Lansdale a great deal, especially Paradise Sky reminds me of Little Big Man.) 

Jack Crabb is played by Dustin Hoffman in the film. It's been a while since I saw the movie, but I seem to remember he's very affable in it. In the book, Crabb is more unpleasant and more opportunist, possibly uncapable of really loving anyone, so Hoffman is possibly miscast. Am I right in this regard or did I just misinterpret everything I read? 

PS. I'm not sure whether I'll ever get back to regular blogging. Seems like time is running out, and there are fewer and fewer books I read that I don't already write about, be it for a book of my own or a review, so it feels a bit weird to write about them both in English and in Finnish. Beside the essay I mentioned, I'm working on a book on Finnish horror literature, which is taking my time. Should be out next year or maybe in 2020, so don't expect too many reviews of American noir or hardboiled here soon. I hear already someone saying I should write about Finnish horror in here... 


Todd Mason said...

There are worse things to write about in English than Finnish horror fiction!

Though translating your Finnish writing about various materials, even in summary or as a gloss, isn't the worst thing you could do for a blog entry.

I've been meaning to read LITTLE BIG MAN for some decades...a copy is buried in one or another of my storage boxes (happily, not in one of the recently soaked ones I've had to open and go through), but haven't read it yet. Berger's reputation is Mostly good in the US, with some dissenters. Oddly enough, I haven't even seen the film in its entirety so far...been avoiding it since picking up the copy of the novel!

Hm...the anti-western...it's less a defined territory than it might once have been. William Burroughs fits in where? Whither cowpunk?

Todd Mason said...

Book packaging usually Not what it should be.

jurinummelin said...

Sorry, Todd, for some reason I didn't notice your comments until now. There just isn't time to do extra writing, save for every now and then, and even then it requires extra effort. Been blaming Facebook for this.

William S. Burroughs surely is an anti-Western writer, though haven't read his Western Lands trilogy.