“Worthless Pieces of Land Surrounded By Scoundrels”*

4 Aug
The Dying Grass by William Vollman

The Dying Grass by William Vollman

I suppose its only fitting that I move from considering the USA’s favored hair shirt (see previous post) , Race, to a  subject held in the benignest ((ignorant erroneous usage intentional)** indifference; the US’s unremiiting persecution of its First Peoples. That a publisher would in fact publish a huge volume on that subject does fly in the face of the notion that publishing has gone done the path of venality and dumbness. Enter Viking and William Vollman’s The Dying Grass

In 1990 William Vollman published the first volume of his ambitiously projected “Seven Dreams” cycle, The Ice-Shirt, which was followed by Volume 2, Fathers and Crows, Volume 3 The Rifles, and Volume 4 Argall. His newest opus the fifth volume, The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War (Seven Dreams: Book of North American Landscapes) tells the story of the ill fated Nez Perce and their doomed war six month war in 1877(though they did extract a measure of revenge at the two-day Battle of the Big Hole in southwestern Montana territory) against the US Army.

Readers familiar with Vollman will have already recognized his apparent inability to write short books (consider for example his 3,300-page tome, Rising Up and Rising Down), his newest opus is no exception. At over 1200 pages, with an additional 135 pages of notes and references, this novel offers a number of challenges besides the obvious — an inner/outer narrative with dialogue and thoughts barely distinguished by indentation.But as David Treuer makes an argument for,  it may well be the reading experience of a lifetime:

What Vollmann has done is nothing short of miraculous: He has taken a story whose ending is well known, yet he has made us wonder how it will end. By the 1870s, it was already known — by Indians and whites alike — that the U.S. government was powerful enough to impose its will on the people within the boundaries of the nation. Yet, the Indian Wars still managed to throw everything into question. The story’s complicated text is set in such a way as to ensure that there is a page for every one of the 1,213 miles traveled by Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce on their journey.)

Vollmann has written an American tragedy with all of the light and shadow, plains and mountains, vast distances and unforgiving climates (political, philosophical, emotional, physical) of our nation. In a time and a market that seem determined to bleed the risk out of fiction — to give us compact narratives of our better angels in the manner of a photograph safely stowed in a locket — Vollmann has written a masterpiece that delivers us to the far shore of our past, a past that is still at war with the ghosts of its decisions. “The Dying Grass” is brilliant and alive.

Back in 1993 with the publication of Fathers and Crows William Vollman talked with Michael Silveblatt aka Bookworm :

* quote on reservations attributed to General Phillip Sheridan

** suggested by self appointed editor, Howard “Hesh” Dinin.

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