Saturday, October 15, 2016

By Sorrow’s River by Larry McMurtry

Book 3 of McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives, so called because they relate the trials and tribulations of the members of an English family named Berrybender as they make their way in the frontier American West of the 1830s.

The primary Berrybender is named Tasmin, a beautiful and fierce-spirited woman married to Jim Snow, an American frontiersman with a famous non de guerre.

“Why would Jimmy want to talk to you anyway, monsieur?” Tasmin inquired. “He ain’t French, and he ain’t nice to strangers.”

“But our readers, madame! Our readers!” Clam insisted. “They know of your famous Sin Killer. They know, but not enough. We will disappoint all of Europe if we come home with no news of the Sin Killer. In Europe he is more famous than Hawkeye, or Natty Bumpo, or any of the characters of Mr. Cooper. It is said he was struck by lightning and feels it is his mission to wipe out sin. They say he can shoot a bow like an Indian, or the rifle like Hawkeye. So please, Madame Snow--when do you expect him to return?”

Yes, Jim Snow is the Sin Killer, introduced in the so-titled first volume of this series. And his mission, indeed, is to wipe out sin.

Tasmin, who had grasped Jim’s arm, felt him stiffen suddenly--his face became dark with anger and he moved so quickly that no one, later, could remember the exact sequence of his actions. Suddenly the pole was in his hands--a pole that they had sharpened to make a goad for their slow and sleepy ox. The pole was Signor Claricia’s. He used it to jab the ox, when the ox seemed about to stop altogether. He had been holding the pole nervously when Obregon approached. But suddenly the Sin Killer had it; Obregon could do no more than open his mouth in shock when Jim hit him in the face with the pole so hard that he was knocked completely off his mule. The pole broke. Jim threw it aside, caught Obregon by his feet, and dragged him to the gully, across from where the renegades waited. Blood poured from the unconscious man’s broken mouth. None of the renegades moved a muscle. Jim pushed Obregon over the edge--he tumbled a few times and lay flat on his back, at the bottom of the gully.

“It’s a bad sin, selling people!” Jim yelled. “Tell him that when he wakes up.”

As I’ve written before, Jim Snow is a kind of wild man’s Natty Bumpoo, a Pathfinder, not just through the wilds of the American West, but through the unforeseen currents and eddies of human morality.

Except Jim has abandoned Tasmin in By Sorrow’s River, gone off to scout a better way forward for their party in hostile Indian territory. And in Jim’s absence, Tasmin relies more and more heavily on another metaphorical frontiersman, Pomp Charboneau.

“Ma said I was born by sorrow’s river,” he said. “I seem to carry a weight. It keeps me from being quite like other men.”

Pomp’s “Ma” is Sacagawea, the historical Indian woman who had accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous journey, and Pomp is the baby she had carried on her back for most of that journey, grown now to young adulthood in McMurtry’s fiction. In Jim’s absence, he becomes Tasmin’s lover, a relationship that culminates at Tasmin’s prompting, not his. And to Tasmin, Pomp is a vexing lover indeed.

She told herself she had better not rush him. Once he learned more about passion he would surely be more active. She must be patient with him, a hard resolve, because she was by nature impatient. Now that she had had a little of what she wanted, she saw no reason not to have more--yet she knew it might be best to accept his shyness, for a time. She tried to brush away the shadow that dappled her happiness. What if Geoff was right? What if Pomp valued calm more than passion? What if in his depths he just wasn’t sensual? His body had responded to her, but even then, his soul he seemed to keep for himself. He was a man without strategies. Even Jim Snow, no very refined seducer, had more guile and much more temperament. She continued to hold Pomp and kiss him, but she couldn’t quite get his sad words out of her mind. He had been born by sorrow’s river--he seemed to carry a weight other men needn’t carry. What could these words mean? She hated all such reflections.

Yes, Tasmin hates all such reflections, but McMurtry doesn’t, for he has clearly set Pomp up as a kind of anti-Jim Snow, an anti-Sin Killer, a man of quiet and melancholy reflection, not spirited and moralistic action.

And it is in Tasmin’s vacillation between her love for these two opposite men that McMurtry is able to spin his fiction, telling us something about America in the process, especially the American West of the time period he is describing.

Tasmin, shaken by a homesickness the more powerful for being, in immediate terms, hopeless, just kept walking, heedless, into the empty prairies that lay between her and all that she desired: English order, English privilege, English intelligence, English lanes, even English clouds. The great prairie sky that had thrilled her so the first time she beheld it, on that first ecstatic moment of the banks of the Missouri, now seemed a brutal thing, a sky under which the worst barbarities were enacted--indeed, might yet be enacted on herself, her siblings, and her child unless they were lucky. She wanted to be again in a place where men saw themselves as lovers of women, rather than killers or trappers.

It is, to Tasmin, and to us, a foreign place with brutalities unimaginable. It is not to be survived, but to weather it McMurtry is telling us one must either be a Jim Snow or a Pomp Charbonneau, a man of action or a man of reserved indifference.

Occasionally, at night, Pomp found that he wished his old tutor, Herr Hanfstaengl, were with him so they could examine the interesting questions that arose in the course of the day: for example, that he, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, had readily caressed a bear but had declined, on more than one occasion, to caress Tasmin Berrybender, a woman he both cared for and admired. They had made love once, he and Tasmin--she had easily drawn his seed into her body, their pleasure very sharp. Most men would have hastened to repeat this pleasure--repeat it as often as possible; and yet Pomp hadn’t. In fact he had done what he could, short of insult, to avoid further embraces with Tasmin. Herr Hanfstaengl, possessed of a stout wife and eleven children, would surely have been curious to know what he had declined to pursue this love affair. Was it because Tasmin was the wife of his friend? Was it from morality that he abstained? Or was it merely that his temperament was to stand apart?

Pomp contemplates the proper course of action: to grapple with the moral conundrums of his world, or stand apart from them? And in doing so, he evokes another famous contemplator of the same subject. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them. This is the fundamental question of By Sorrow’s River, philosophy dressed up in the idiom of the bawdy and brutish American West.

And, of course, let’s not forget that famous opening line of Hamlet’s soliloquy. To be or not to be.

Captain Reyes advanced toward Pomp until he stood at point-blank range. Only then did he raise his musket. For a moment he allowed his gaze to meet that of the young man he was about to kill. The young man’s eyes were unfrightened, undisturbed. Once he looked into his intended victim’s eye, the captain, to his great surprise, could not turn away, for in the young man’s eyes he seemed to see understanding--even sympathy--neither of which Captain Reyes had ever been offered in his life. It was as if the condemned man, the favorite, saw it all: the early glory, then the bitter failure on the plains, the stalled career, the dull cadets, the dust. He saw it all; he understood.

Captain Reyes is an (unfortunately) underdeveloped character, a Spanish soldier that holds a grudge against William Clark for evading him with his Corps of Discovery, who enters late in the narrative with a vendetta against Pomp Charbonneau.

Then, while Captain Reyes was considering the possibility that he had misjudged this quiet, sympathetic young man, a gun went off. Pomp Charbonneau fell, as Lieutenant Molino had fallen. The understanding eyes went blank. Captain Reyes turned, to see what fool had fired, and realized, to his shock, that the drifting smoke came from his own musket. He had fired.

Several other characters have been killed, and now Reyes kills Pomp--the weight carried by Pomp through life giving him the ability to recognize those weights in others but, ultimately, not the ability to prevent his own demise. Immediately thereafter Reyes kills himself, overcome with the grief and futility of his existence. And as the bodies pile up, McMurtry can’t resist giving the reader one final clue as to what he’s been toying with in this narrative.

“Why it’s like the bard,” Lord Berrybender said, looking around him. “Dead men everywhere you look. Exeunt omnes, or pretty nearly.”

Exeunt omnes, indeed. The novel ends a page later, and we’ll have to wait for Book 4 to see how Jim Snow reacts to all this carnage. Unlike Pomp, as we are sure to be reminded in that final page, Jim is a fighter, someone who would have “scattered these poor shivering Spanish boys” of Captain Reyes’s “like quail.”

The fact that McMurtry decided to title the next volume “Folly and Glory,” however, tells me that the Sin Killer’s chosen method for grappling with the world may not come off in the end any better than Pomp’s. If Pomp is Hamlet, one must wonder, will McMurtry paint the Sin Killer as the manipulated Othello?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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