Edward Bayard Turrentine III comes to Nebraska for his health in the 1870s. (Was the air in Nebraska salubrious? His mother, who dispatched him there, apparently didn’t ask.) When Edward arrives there is no sanatorium in which to recuperate, and his money soon runs out. His mother doesn’t answer his letters. He wants to go back to Connecticut and find out what has happened to her, but he can’t because he’s broke. As the story opens, he is sullying his soft hands ineptly skinning buffalo and hoping to stay alive. The locals mock him as “Turpentine.”
The book is two-thirds of a Western, for the middle is set in New Haven, where the hero finds himself framed for a bombing he didn’t commit. Poor “Turpentine” lives in a world he didn’t make and can barely understand. In the picaresque tradition, he is befriended and beset by thieves, liars, and con artists of every stripe.
Turpentine reminded me of John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor, although it is not quite literary fiction. I was grateful for the upbeat ending, even though I didn’t quite believe it. Until that final chapter, however, black humor reigns. There is chicanery and fraud in the East. The West is as it no doubt was: violent, lawless and dirty. Turpentine helped me endure—with a grin—a six-hour delay in the Atlanta airport.