Published on Sunday, January 1, 2012
Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies
and Counter-Lies in the Old West
By Thomas Berger
Reviewed by Kenneth Mark Hoover
I love how Berger frames this story in such a smart way that lays the foundation for the philosophical underpinning which Little Big Man is all about. It begins with a Forward by a Man of Letters, ostensibly a self-important, verbose, and overblown literary hack and pedantic armchair historian named Ralph Fielding Snell. Snell begins the forward by telling us about his personal, family, medical, and money troubles along with the fact he happened to know a man by the name of Jack Crabb who is, according to Crabb's own testimony and no supportable documented evidence whatsoever, the last remaining survivor of Custer's Last Stand.
This is an important framework because it's what the novel is really all about, and by extension what the Old West is really all about despite what we would like to think otherwise. It is, in essence, the pure genius of Thomas Berger.
Here's what I mean. Snell is untrustworthy as the person who brings us this story. He makes that clear in his forward. Even worse than that, Crabb himself, for all his outward honesty that what he says is something he truly believes, is also an untrustworthy narrator. Snell never lets us forget that, but by implication (and from how Snell writes and goes off on personal tracks) we can't trust Snell either.
So we have a story brought to light by Snell, who we obviously cannot trust, and a story from someone who purports to be the last surviving member of Custer's Last Stand without any disprovable evidence. Snell does in fact, despite all his faults, know his armchair history. He does the footwork and has all the names of all the soldiers who died during that battle. Crabb's is not among them. In fact, to Snell's surprise, Crabb gets some of the names wrong. But Snell glosses over this and puts this down to Crabb's advancing age and the years that have passed since that historic event.
Snell mentions several times he is astonished at how accurate Crabb's memory is for the most part. Crabb has exact dates and times at his fingertips as he relates his story. On the other hand, the minor mistakes Crabb makes is proof to Snell that the story is true. Because a liar of such magnitude would either have everything pinned down or get everything wrong. Crabb's story is somewhere in the middle, leaning toward observable historical fact, therefore Snell believes it to be true.
What we have here is Snell is using Crabb to elevate his own overblown importance. Crabb is using Snell to elevate his personal story. They both know exactly what they are doing and why. And that's the fundamental genius of Thomas Berger. He makes it clear to the reader that what we read about the Old West in this novel and every other novel cannot be trusted because what we take as fact is, for the most part, what Davis Milch of Deadwood fame said of history: it nothing but a lie agreed upon.
And so the story begins.
II. The Life of Jack Crabb
Little Big Man begins with a courageous, and enlightening, statement from Crabb: "I am a white man and never forget it, but I was brought up by the Cheyenne Indians from the age of ten."
With one stroke we are assured by Thomas Berger this will not be one of those White Man Learns the Ways of the Other and Succeeds stories. We've seen this time and again to exhaustion, perhaps most egregiously in the movies Dancing With Wolves and Avatar. No, Jack Crabb let's us know from the beginning he thinks of himself as a white man, not a Cheyenne, and always will.
Now, to be fair, Crabb does tell us in stirring detail what living among the Cheyenne was like, and juxtaposed with that is what living among white men are like. In fact, given the choice, Crabb prefers neither one but leans toward the whites by accident of birth if nothing else. They both have their good points and bad, but given the fact Crabb was born a white man he can only look at himself and the Cheyenne through that lens. He doesn't pretend to be Cheyenne though over time he does go back to live with them. He bounces between both worlds and bounces between how he views himself and what he thinks of men in general.
His feeling toward Old Lodge Skins is perhaps the best example of this. Crabb views the old Cheyenne chief as a bloody and savage reprobate, and yet Crabb loves him with all his heart and doesn't apologize one whit for it. As Crabb moves through history, finding friends and losing them, meeting historical persons and leaving them in his wake, knowing love and losing it, the one constant in his life is Old Lodge Skins. It is a carefully drawn relationship by Berger, texturally layered with pathos and humor and truth.
I suppose you may wonder why I am referring to these characters as if they were real. That's because the way Berger writes them they are real. We really care about Jack Crabb, what happens to him, the losses he suffers, the heartbreak, the anger at the savagery and wanton slaughter he sees on both sides.
Not that I mean to imply Crabb is a sympathetic character. Far from it. He lies, cheats, steals, and does whatever it takes to survive. Crabb's one true gift: he is a survivor. It just happens the story he has to tell is a superb one. Leavened through Little Big Man is Berger's own knowledge and research of the Old West. There is not one false note in tone or description in this story. It is a towering achievement.
The center point of the novel is, of course, Custer's Last Stand and how Crabb views Custer as a man and a soldier and a killer. The whole impetus for Snell to bring Crabb's story to light is the fact he purports to be the last survivor of that battle. Crabb's own reaction is a study in itself. He knows there is going to be a slaughter one way or the other and he wants to prevent it. But he is trapped because, as he said in the beginning of his story, he is a white man and make no mistake about it.
This is why the novel ends on such a sad note. After the passing of Old Lodge Skins Crabb remains torn between two worlds. He never finds the one true place he belongs. Yes, he believes himself a white man and nothing else, but his actions and his philosophy certainly speak otherwise. I think in effect he is lying to himself about himself. Or perhaps he feels so trapped by fate he cannot deviate from the path he is on. I do not know. I am not sure there is supposed to be a final answer. I don't think Berger meant to provide one. It is not that kind of novel.
Finally, a reader can approach Little Big Man in one of two ways. You can view it as a fantastic and exciting Old West story about a man who survived Custer's Last Stand. It works to perfection in that light. You will not be disappointed. Or you can see the philosophical elements Berger has put in there and weigh the novel on their merit alone. Or you can find a balance between the two.
No matter what you do, when you read Little Big Man and reach the end you will have to make a judgment about the story, the characters, the philosophy, and what it means in relation to your own worldview. In other words, you will be forced, like Jack Crabb, to make a judgment.
Very few novels have that potential. Little Big Man by Thomas Berger, and the iconic character of Jack Crabb, does.
Kenneth Mark Hoover is a professional writer who has sold over fifty short stories and articles. His novel, Fevreblau, was published by Five Star Press in 2005. His last sales have been to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies Destination: Future and Zero Gravity. He is a member of SFWA and HWA. Mr. Hoover lives and writes in Dallas.
You can find more about the mythological town of Haxan and its citizens on his webpage kennethmarkhoover.com/haxan.