Return of Little Big Man


In Salon, Allen Barra says the Western genre, in movies, TV, and books, is in full, range-riding, dogie-punching good health. Although I find one of his speculations highly improbable (that over the last 20 years westerns may have comprised "as big a slice of the Hollywood production pie as ever"), Barra's discussion of capital-W Western literature, and of how through most of its history the literature lagged behind movie westerns creatively, is interesting, and features this payoff:

The lodestone for the modern western novel, by consensus, is Thomas Berger's "Little Big Man," acknowledged by many critics, Pauline Kael among them, as a major novel in any genre. Its protagonist and narrator, the 111-year old Jack Crabb, tells his life story to Ralph Fielding Snell, "a man of letters," who concludes that Crabb "was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions." There is plenty of ammunition for either conclusion: Having been kidnapped by Indians as a boy (he says) and spending his entire life moving back and forth between the two cultures, Jack meets nearly every famous character of the Old West, from Wyatt Earp to Wild Bill Hickok (whose murder in Deadwood Jack witnesses) to Sitting Bull and Gen. Custer. In the end, Jack becomes the only survivor of the battle of the "Little Big Horn." He makes no apologies for the incredulity of his tale: If you don't believe him "you can go to hell."

The book's appeal traces to two main currents: one, it's a tall tale in the great American tradition of Mark Twain, and, second, it's hip, modern and funny and anticipates appreciation and understanding of a vanished Indian culture by decades—I know of no other novel by a white man that has such a favorable reputation among Indian intellectuals from Vine Deloria Jr. to Sherman Alexie. Unlike nearly every other white character in fiction or film, Jack never tries to judge Indians or explain them: "Indians simply never understood whites, and vice versa," he concludes. Sometimes his white chauvinism pops through. After arguing with one of his Indian relatives on the greatness of the Human Beings (as the Cheyenne refer to themselves), Jack looses his temper: "Whenever I ran into their arrogance it served only to remind me I was basically white. The greatest folk on earth! Christ, they wouldn't had them iron knives if Columbus hadn't hit these shores. And who brought them the pony in the first place?" Compared to the soggy piety of most white writers' accounts of native cultures, Crabb's crusty skepticism must strike most American Indians as refreshing.

Dismissively reviewed by the New York Times and ignored by most others upon publication, "Little Big Man" has metamorphosed into a classic, largely due to word of mouth, reputation among such luminaries as Henry Miller and, most notably, Ralph Ellison, who championed it to other National Book Award judges. (They said no; westerns need not apply.) It was reportedly one of Janis Joplin's favorite books. John Cheever told Berger that on his visit to the USSR he noticed, "Everyone at the University of Moscow was reading 'Little Big Man' in the seventies and eighties." Marlon Brando was the first to want to make a film from it, but couldn't get the backing following the disaster of "Mutiny on the Bounty." Arthur Penn eventually brought it to the screen in 1970, but as a Vietnam-era allegory that gives off just a faint echo of the novel's resonance. The novel, reissued last year by Delta, is timeless, as is the 1999 sequel, "The Return of Little Big Man," which expands Jack's adventures to include the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Wounded Knee massacre. Sadly, "The Return of Little Big Man" is currently out of print, though easily available from online booksellers. An energetic filmmaker looking for a fresh new subject for an epic western could do a lot worse than giving both books the screen treatment they deserve.

Amen to that! I'd only add that while the movie is a disappointment, it features career-best performances by Richard Mulligan as George Armstrong Custer and Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins. And also: Thomas Berger's genius is by no means limited to the Western genre. America's least appreciated novelist (look at this paltry wikipedia entry) shines in science fiction, detective books, Arthurian romance, absurd surrealism, Cheeveresque ruminations on marriage and status, and just about any other genre you can name. Little Big Man is not the only time Berger's been ill-served by Hollywood: You'll also want to stay away from the movie versions of Neighbors and The Feud, though both books are worth reading. Now as old as Chief Dan George himself, Berger is still active, and I hope he brings out another Carlo Reinhart book before either the author or the character dies. Or better yet, that Berger might outlive Jack Crabbe and get the recognition he doesn't court but deserves.