A. B. Guthrie’s book, The Big Sky, about a Kentuckian turned mountain man in the first half of the 19th century, was chosen as “the best novel of the American West” by members of the Western Literature Association. Who would argue with them? This 1947 novel is a humdinger for sure. But the foreward by Wallace Stegner puts the reader in mind of Stegner’s own “novels of the American West” and you have to wonder, “better than that?”
But why compare? Stegner is certainly more literary, but to give Guthrie his due: the man puts you in the past as though you’d worked on a Missouri River keelboat all your life, details trapping as though he made his living that way, and paints the set so convincingly it’s like stepping into one of those mammoth-plate, 18 x 22, daguerreotypes of the Rockies before the coming of the ski lifts, only in technicolor.
Boone Caudill, the de-civilized protagonist of Big Sky, is no Jeremiah Johnson. He doesn’t happen to like law — too confining and all that — which sounds all nice and free-spirited, but in practical application it means theft, murder and rape are well within his accepted norms of behavior. A farmer’s wife who shoos him off her property with a broom (after he’s overdone it in what is meant to be a friendly sparring match with her husband) pegs him exactly: “You got murder in your hands and murder in your eyes or I don’t know gee from haw.”
I must warn you: The Big Sky is maybe the most violent novel I’ve ever read. Not for the squeamish — or, rather, only for the squeamish who don’t mind bloody goings-on once removed in fictive form. Even then, there are more toe-curling passages in this novel than in your average tuff-guy thriller — these guys don’t just eat the raw liver of their fresh kills, they dip it in the bladder for that extra burst of meaty goodness. Only Mel Gibson could begin to do it justice on the screen.
The Big Sky, by A. B. Guthrie, Mariner Books 400 bloodcurdling pages.