A sturdy historical novel recounting the adventures and misadventures of the second president of Texas.
“Some say that if Mirabeau Lamar hadn’t shot the buffalo he wouldn’t have become president.” That’s as promising an opening line as any, and author Kerr (Seat of Empire: The Embattled Birth of Austin, Texas, 2013, etc.) does a reasonably good job of playing it out. That sentence promises a man of action, for instance, and Lamar surely delivers, if sometimes contemptibly, as when he nonchalantly executes a wounded Indian after a skirmish. “That wasn’t a man and it wasn’t murder,” he insists with lawyerly command of semantics. There are plenty of such uncomfortable moments, for Lamar has a Trumpian view of things (“Have the Mexicans produced the same caliber of men to be found in America or Texas?”) and an impulsive way of carrying out his desires. The narrator, a young man who works for Lamar, is something of a cipher, disapproving of some of Lamar’s deeds but going along with them all the same; when Lamar calls Mexicans “mongrelized sons with savage blood in their veins” and Native people “little more than animals, really,” Edward Fontaine professes only to being “unconvinced.” The reader may be unconvinced by Kerr’s use of long italicized asides to convey the sometimes-philosophical, sometimes-mundane observations of Edward’s slave, Jacob (“I told him if it had four wheels and was pulled by a critter with four legs then I could drive it”). Historical revisionists will be interested, though, in Kerr’s dramatic reconstruction of the seething mutual contempt of Lamar and Sam Houston, Lamar’s predecessor in office and a man widely despised for showing clemency to Santa Anna after the Battle of San Jacinto. “How is such a flawed man puffed up into the very epitome of heroism?” wonders Edward early on, though his views will be seasoned in time.
It’s no Blood Meridian, but fans of Texas history will learn a thing or two from Kerr’s ripsnortin’ yarn.