An effete easterner in western guise rambles across the 19th-century American landscape.
One of the primary motifs of American fiction is reinvention (Huck Finn, Gatsby, et al.), and in this novel, the narrator, Edward Turrentine Bayard III, aka Ned, puts on identities as easily as he changes clothes. Through a combination of ill-health (his own) and duplicity (others’), he’s moved from Connecticut to the western frontier and in the first scene finds himself skinning buffaloes, with more enthusiasm than skill, in Nebraska. But the young man is a talented, self-taught artist, and a leading paleontologist uncovers this talent and promises to mentor Ned by sponsoring his admission to Yale. Back east, the scientist, alas, turns out to be both paranoid and fraudulent, and he turns on Ned just when Ned’s academic promise begins to manifest itself. Through a complicated series of misunderstandings and false claims, Ned is labeled an anarchist and is forced to find his way westward again, not so much to prove his innocence as to escape a false identity that’s been thrust upon him. He’s accompanied by two companions: Curly, a young boy he’s rescued from the Pennsylvania mines, and Phaegin, a cigar-rolling gamine he’s picked up on the streets of New Haven. At this point, the novel loses focus, as the picaresque narrative becomes as thin as a buffalo hide. We follow Ned’s attempt to recover his first—and lost—love; he becomes wary when an operative from the Pinkerton Detective Agency is discovered to be on his tail; he and his companions suffer hunger, thirst, distrust and victimization—all the usual suspects. Several characters introduced early on turn up unexpectedly as Ned carefully picks his route back west.
The journey eventually becomes tedious as Ned fails to establish an identity that satisfies both himself and the reader.