TRAPPER by Thomas York


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Many others have retold the true Northwest Territory story of ""Mad Trapper"" Albert Johnson, a 1931 fugitive who eluded the Canadian Mounties for 48 ordeal days. But York (And Sleep in the Woods, Snowman) has turned Johnson's melodrama into a literary, philosophical, inflated but often-interesting epic--ornate with Biblical and liturgical references, bizarre sexual fantasies, dream sequences, theosophy, and interludes from Morte D'Arthur. The action here begins when Johnson arrives in tiny Fort McPherson, buys a costly load of trapping supplies, arouses Mountie suspicions, and then--after near-superhuman navigations on the Rat River--digs a partly-underground fort for himself on a hill in the absolute wilderness. Why? We never know, except that Johnson is a misanthrope and possible criminal (where'd his money come from?) who seems to relish his paranoia and anticipates doing battle. So, when a Mountie constable approaches Johnson's cabin to inquire about possible poaching on Indian traps, Johnson ignores him--and when the constable returns with a search warrant, Johnson shoots him in the chest. Soon, then, the battle is under way--as Inspector A. N. Eames (a recovered alcoholic separated from his wife) leads a posse to the cabin: 15 hours of gunfire, plus dynamite, fail to dislodge Johnson from his fort. When a second posse arrives four clays later, Johnson is gone. There's a search of the delta and the foothills; a man in the third posse is killed. And, meanwhile, Eames is reading strange newspaper accounts of the entire affair which seem to be written by his estranged wife! He also has a brief sex idyll with a doctor's wife, must fend off his own wife's arrival, and hopes that a WW I air ace will help to locate the vanished Johnson. Indeed, Johnson is at last gunned down on a mountain . . . but he survives, after a fashion, through astral projection (Eames is himself a theosophist). York works hard at investing this tale with grand-scale weightiness: his Johnson is, to iffy effect, an Individualistic Hero-Villain pursued by Civilization--perhaps crazy, perhaps sublime. And Eames is forever slipping between levels of consciousness. But this fracturing into philosophical excursions is awkward as often as it is fascinating--with more than a few pseudo-Joycean, excessive moments. (E.g., a woman masturbating in counterpoint to the Canticle of Simeon.) And, ironically, it's the good, old outdoors melodrama itself that holds the attention, whereas the ambitious, unusual trimmings will intrigue a few readers while alienating many.

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 1981
Publisher: Doubleday