A young Civil War veteran ventures West, encountering violence and moments of revelation on his way.
Lock, whose work often encompasses eras and notions of history and literature in unexpected ways, is working in a more restrained manner in this novel. Narrator Stephen Moran encounters real-life figures (including Walt Whitman and Ulysses S. Grant), his path quietly intersecting with major historical events from the Civil War to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Initially a bugler, Stephen loses one eye in a battle and winds up working on President Abraham Lincoln's funeral train. From there his life takes him West, which will further shape his character, especially his time working for photographer William Henry Jackson. There’s a brief metaphor involving an aging Huck Finn that will stand on its own to some readers and evoke for others Lock’s The Boy In His Winter (2014), in which Huck and Jim travel through decades’ worth of history via the Mississippi River. Like that novel, this one is structured with an older narrator looking back over his life. As the story progresses, Stephen has fateful encounters with George Custer and Crazy Horse, leading to moments of vengeance and haunting realizations. Stephen is aware of his moral shortcomings and conscious of the racial conflicts and power struggles—some of them fatal—that play out around him. “There was room on the calendar for only one martyrdom in April,” Stephen notes after a run-in with a group of Confederate sympathizers after Lincoln’s death. He’s a memorable narrator, seeking to understand the new medium of photography but also capable of acts of swift violence. A subplot involving his visions of the future—"It came to me in dreams. Terrible ones!” he says—arrives halfway through the book but turns out to have a solid payoff.
This novel memorably encompasses grand themes and notions of transcendence without ever losing sight of the grit and moral horrors present in the period.