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2 december 2018

Carys Davies' West is not like many other books, but it reminds me a bit of Larry McMurtry's Berrybender novels. Though not very much, at that. The affinities are few – among other things, West is a sparsely-told novella and the Berrybender books are immense, overtold sagas. In each case, though, the setting is the early 19th-century American west, not long after Lewis and Clark. The protagonist, a English patriarch of sorts, has ventured onto the trackless plains in a pointless quest. He meets Indians, shoots some animals, wanders around a lot, and the whole effort proves ultimately to be fairly pointless. The pointlessness, in both cases, is the point: these are not tales of manifest destiny, but of the basic restlessness of the Euro-American in pursuit of little more than the pursuit itself.

Cy Bellman, in West, however, is far more idealistic, and a whole lot more likeable, than McMurtry's Lord Berrybender. Bellman, a widowed immigrant English mule-breeder in Pennsylvania, has decided to head up the Missouri River, and to the Pacific if need be, in search of gigantic animals that he's read about in a newspaper account of a fossil find in Kentucky. Probably they're mammoths. Bellman himself has only a foggy idea of their form. In the famous Buffon-Jefferson contention, where the French naturalist assured the world that America could only produce puny specimens of animal, and the author of the Declaration contended that everything's bigger here, Bellman clearly takes Jefferson's side. He is determined to find living behemoths somewhere out there.

The other principal characters are Bellman's daughter Bess, just ten years old when her father leaves for the prairies; and a teenage Native named Old Woman From a Distance, who is enlisted as Bellman's guide. Old Woman From a Distance is no westerner, though; come to find, eventually, that he is a displaced Easterner, cheated of his land and wealth by whites and abandoned on the plains. Bellman and Old Woman From a Distance don't communicate well – neither ever learns the other's language – but they make the best of their odd partnership, and develop mutual respect despite their alienness to each other.

The perspective of Davies' novella shifts seamlessly from character to character, sometimes between paragraphs. We get to see unexpected good in people (particularly Bellman and Old Woman From a Distance) but also the worst in some very bad characters indeed. Davies' worldview, at least in this book, is far from romanticizing, but it allows decency to shine through – in ways that are psychologically convincing, if wrapped overall in a fanciful, eventually quite bizarre, story.

Davies, Carys. West. New York: Scribner [Simon & Schuster], 2018.