First, a rant: What's with this new publishing trend that strings readers out? Remember Stephen King's The Green Mile? It came out in six serialized editions. Now comes Larry McMurtry, with the first of what is to be a four-part series: The Berrybender Narratives. By the time you're done, you'll be into him for about $100 (if you buy the hardbound editions). Sin Killer, the first installment, is 300 pages of double-spaced type -- I finished the book in four sittings. What's really sad is that this is the guy who brought us Lonesome Dove, a monster of a novel (850 pages). Guess Larry figures he better make hay while the sun shines, but it still kind of stinks. Okay, rant complete.
As for the book, McMurtry takes us back to the raw American West, a place he describes better than just about any novelist. When the book's heroine, a young English woman traveling with her eccentric family up the Missouri River in 1832, first encounters the prairies, McMurtry struts his stuff: "Tasmin opened her eyes to a dawn of such brilliance that it seemed the planet itself was being reborn... With the huge sky drawing her eyes upward toward infinity, she felt at one with an earthly magnificence that her tidy island upbringing had left her unprepared to imagine."
To balance out the stunning scenery, we have a cast of characters that contains a number of flat-out buffoons. Chief among them is Lord Albany Berrybender, an extremely wealthy English nobleman who is obsessed with hunting American game. Save one bloody bison hunt, on this adventure more members of the traveling party are killed than wild animals. But as their steamboat chugs deeper into danger, Berrybender's eldest daughter, Tasmin, falls in love with Jim Snow, an evangelical loner called Sin Killer by the natives.
As a Western, there's not a lot to be read into this tale, which is funny, engaging and sometimes quite brutal. But it's clear that McMurtry sees the West as a great leveler, as the titles of England have little clout out on the prairies. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to argue that for McMurtry, the representatives of high civilization are really the least civilized of all.
McMurtry's a good enough writer to make me want to see how he follows through on these themes -- and to see what happens to the Berrybenders, who are facing dire straits at the conclusion of Sin Killer. If this was Lonesome Dove, I'd still be reading. But this is the new Larry McMurtry, so I have to wait for volume 2. I wonder if I'll still be interested enough by then.