Email this review


A ponderous attempt at a Western epic from Australian novelist Matthews (The Further Adventures of Huckleberrry Finn, 1983). In the late 1850's, in St. Louis, a half-Indian, half-white infant is left on the doorstep of a church and adopted by kindly Dr. William Cobden over the shrill protests of his wife, Emilia, who refuses to have a redskin in the house and won't have anything to do with the boy. The child grows up to be Joe Cobden, a wild, shaggy youth who is brutally teased by the other children, not only for his dubious parentage but for the unchecked scoliosis which leaves him a hunchback. If this is ""civilization,"" it's not for Joe, so he heads west to Kansas and naturally--he even looks like a buffalo, with that hump there--becomes a famous buffalo hunter in the great slaughter of the 70's. But when all his money is stolen by an embezzling banker, he turns derelict and alcoholic, reduced to picking up buffalo bones (only one of Matthews' many heavy-handed ironies) and selling them as fertilizer. One day, he wanders into the little town of Valley Forge (his birthplace, unbeknownst to Joe and everyone else) and renews his acquaintance with Calvin Puckett, a classic 19th-century schizophrenic religious nut (perhaps the seminal one) who knew Joe in the glory buffalo days and had once even planned to kill him, because voices told him to do it. Old Cal has settled down somewhat, so when his wife leaves him, he: allows Joe to move in and care for him and for his young son, Noah. What follows has little to do with the Old West, or the ""heart"" of the country, although judging by the goings-on, Valley Forge might properly be called the spleen. There's a necrophiliac undertaker, an incestuous preacher, a rich, scheming rancher. Then Cal dies, Noah leaves town, the West turns into a tourist attraction, and Joe ends his days--yes--carving wooden indians for the cigar-store trade. Densely written, without even the slightest leavening of humor, and certainly without the color and sweep and verve and authenticity of great western novels like Thomas Berger's Little Big Man and Larry McMurtry's recent Lonesome Dove.

Pub Date: April 21st, 1986
Publisher: Norton