American By Blood
First, the bad news about this first novel. Dealing with the aftermath of Custer’s disaster at the Little Big Horn, in 1876, and the army’s pursuit of the tribes responsible for the “massacre,” Huebner begins with a dose of Grand Guignol among the 7th Cavalry’s mutilated dead, lying on the bluff and in the coulees. He bashes on through a series of violent scenes which he doesn’t always handle convincingly, gives us a brief snapshot of Custer himself in which this cultivated (if egomaniacal) cavalry officer is made to talk like an Okie, and commits some sins against logic, accuracy, and common sense. (How – or why – does a dying Crow scout suddenly show his inner thoughts? How could the authorities take away Major Reno’s “stripes”? What is a “regiment” of a hundred cavalry troopers? And don’t ask about the Gatling gun or the other firearms. Editors, where are you?) This work, finally, is clearly an instance of the Novel as Therapy, and Huebner’s effort resembles some of the more grimly revelatory Vietnam War novels – though in the latter the weaponry would be accurately described.
That being said, the author manages to get across a lively and often powerful sense of western place – “the land speaks” – and of the harsh realities and even harsher ambiguities that beset commanders and troopers alike as they tried to find the fleeing Sioux and Cheyenne chiefs and their followers. The characters of the protagonists (one of them an ancestor of the author) are roughed out but are made eventually memorable, though his Indians are stick figures in war paint. The narrative is powerfully linear, with its effects created by conjunction and connection, and with no deep textures. Some of the movement is unexplained and random. It succeeds, though, in giving the reader a strong impression both of furious action and drunken lassitude as “American blood” is shed on the earth; no one is at all noble. The only sex, barring battlefield rape, in the book is handled delicately, almost offhandedly. In fact the author has not written a form-fitting Western in any strict sense, but a historical novel with a lot of raw and naive power, mainly good and convincing dialogue, tremendous drive and pace, and even some rough poetry.
If Huebner finds a decent editor he could become a dangerous writer. Not a novel for everyone, but one that, in the end, almost lives up to its dust-jacket blurbs.