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Posted on 8 Jan 2015 in Fiction |

ROBERT BAUSCH Far As the Eye Can See. Reviewed by Peter Corris

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bauschMuch more than just a satisfying Western adventure story, this novel is also an emotional map of the country.

The Western novel has had a distinctive and distinguished place in American literature, from the time of James Fennimore Cooper to the present. The first Westerns I remember reading were the Deerfoot novels by Edward S Ellis. Wikipedia gets it right, saying they were ‘read widely by young boys until the 1950s’. I was entranced by them.

I moved on to Zane Grey, exciting at the time, unreadable now for the thin characterisation and stilted dialogue, and then to psychologically more satisfying works like Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1949).

Although the mass popularity of the genre declined, good Westerns continued to appear from time to time, including Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964), Marilyn Durham’s The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1972) and Ron Hansen’s Desperadoes (1979) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983).

However the bar was set very high in 1985 by two very different novels, both epic and powerful – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.

Since then, apart from some – but not all – other works by McCarthy and McMurtry, nothing has come close to the quality of those except, possibly, Philipp Meyer’s The Son (2013). But I am constantly on the lookout and was pleased to be given Robert Bausch’s book for review.

There is something compelling, in its brutality, rapacity and deceit, about the theme of interaction of settlers and Native Americans in the hands of an accomplished writer. This theme is present in most of the books mentioned and vibrantly so in Far As the Eye Can See.

Bausch’s account of the adventures of ‘Bobby Hale’ (as a serial enlister and deserter from the Union Army in the Civil War to claim the sign-on payment, he goes by various names) is a tale rich in incident, character, and observation. The hard lives of everyone in the Great Plains – Native Americans, soldiers, gold-seekers and settlers – is laid out on a big scale.

Bobby, after joining a wagon train bound for Oregon, becomes in turn a fur trapper, an Army Scout and the travelling protector of a Native American woman and boy. A resourceful woodsman and a sharpshooter, he acquits himself well against formidable enemies – the Sioux and Cheyenne and the US Army.

Life was cheap in the Plains and death wasn’t for the squeamish:

Jake’s body was soaked, and hung over the back of his horse with his head dripping water like a man just coming up out of a cool swim in a creek. He was a sight to see, with purple skin and bulging eyes. It was too cold for him to start to bloat, so I guess that was a good thing.  

But as the title implies, the book is much more than an adventure story, satisfying and romantic though that is. It’s also an emotional map of the country – its rivers, plains, hills and mountains – and the threats the country presents:

Folks called it ‘the Big West’. It’s big all right, but what they forget is, once you get near it, you realize how small you are. Small and unimportant, like something squeaky in the hay of a big barn.

Bausch has pulled off a difficult trick here, as in the passage quoted above, in presenting grammatical and almost poetic images in what for the most part is an ungrammatical first-person narrative. That style can become tedious if laid on too thickly and departures from it have to be carefully managed to be credible and to also pull the reader up short. Bausch has managed it adroitly, as befits a teacher of creative writing.

Far As the Eye Can See has neither the power of Blood Meridian nor the scope of Lonesome Dove, but it’ll do nicely until something even better comes along.

Robert Bausch Far As the Eye Can See Bloomsbury 2015 PB 320pp $29.99

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here or from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.