Nearly ten years after Thornley (Attempts to Join Society, 1986, etc.) won the George Orwell Memorial Prize for the film project of Coyote comes instead a period pieceboth ponderous and hallucinatoryfeaturing a nimble young British actor who journeys to 1830s America, ultimately to confront Death on the banks of the Mississippi. In London, John Gay is a promising Harlequin, but the freak death of a uniquely talented fellow acrobat in a cattle stampede unhinges him, sending him to seek his fortune in New York. He travels with acclaimed actor Edmond Parsloe, intending to stage with him a Harlequin version of Mother Goose, but after a rough sea journey complicated by a bizarre company of fellow travelers, the two arrive bruised and shaken. Unable to overcome a shipboard back injury, Edmond dies in a catapult collision with Gay onstage, and in a fog of suffering and guilt, Gay allows Rennah Wells, the slithering Yankee who crossed the ocean with them and who has an obsession for heads, to dig up Parsloe's. Drawn by stories of Indian dancers and shamans, Gay travels west, accompanied by the skull of his friend and also by Wells, but in a British fort outside Detroit, Wells is imprisoned while Gay and ``Edmond'' go free. Starving and feverish, Gay totters westward into the prairie until found by the medicine man Waboshiek, inhabitant of a former Indian village on the Mississippi whose people had been betrayed and slaughtered by US soldiers. Waboshiek relieves Gay of a peculiar mental disease stemming from his friend's death in the stampede, trying to use it to enhance his own power, but when Wells reappears hunting both their heads, a deadly showdown ensues. For all the marvels and fantasies detailed here: a sluggish, fever-laden vision of history in which effects outweigh substance and mood overshadows meaning.