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Monday, November 12, 2007

Book Review: "The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis"

Michael Pritchett’s debut novel, “The Melancholy Life of Capt. Lewis” has a Faulkner-esque quality; a dense, multi-layering of past and present; a gradual unfolding of plot and circumstances. Pritchett’s control of this technically difficult story-telling method is admirable.

When I started “Melancholy Life,” I was insecure about never having read a history of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Though for years I’ve had a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” I’ve yet to read it. At times I was tempted to put “Melancholy Fate” down, quickly read the Ambrose, and then start back up again. In the end, I let my ignorance of Lewis & Clark be a kind of litmus to how well-told “Melancholy Fate” would be. I had no preconceived notions, nothing to compare the story to.

As the title suggests, this is a story in which the two main characters, Meriwether Lewis and a contemporary character, Bill Lewis, both suffer from “melancholy,” that is, profound depressive episodes. The story see-saws back and forth between Capt. Lewis’ exploratory journey, and the present-day Bill, who is a high-school history teacher attempting to write a book about the historical Lewis. The parallels between the two Lewis’ is clear: depression to the point of insanity, difficulty in interpersonal relationships, attraction to unattainable women, same last name (there is no hint of them being related).

The historical details of the early Lewis narrative are sparse. Pritchett is more concerned with painting a kind of abstract of Lewis – what he might have been thinking and feeling, how these thoughts might have influenced his actions and words, as recorded by history and by his own extensive journals. During the present-day narratives, Bill fills in more historical details during many conversations with other characters. As the book progresses towards the historical Lewis’ inevitable(?) suicide (or was it a murder – that is a question Bill Lewis wrestles over), there is a mounting tension in the present, in which the reader wonders whether Bill, who is similar to Lewis is so many ways, will follow the same course. His emotional state is so convincingly miserable, even the reader wonders how he could possibly keep going on.

The psychological rendering of both main characters is excellent. Any reader who has had experience with depression will be able to strongly identify with them. However, while I was able to maintain sympathy for Meriwether throughout the story, there was a point where I just wanted to slap Bill and say, “Better living through chemistry, dude.” There is very little reference to medication or medical help for depression in general. Towards the beginning of the story, there is an incident that suggests Bill neglects his own medical care, which is troubling, because in this day and age, so much of what Meriwether would have been helpless against, Bill could have received help for. It could be that Bill’s neglect of his personal health (as also illustrated by a smoking habit) is a deliberate attempt to get inside the mind and experience of the historical Lewis, or perhaps he is just simply so depressed he doesn’t care. If the latter is Pritchett’s intent, it is masterfully done, if not terribly evident to the reader.

The book sets the reader up for a profound, end-of-the-story kind of redemption and revelation, and while I really think Pritchett is aiming for this – a glimmer of hope with which to leave the reader – I don’t really think he pulls it off. The readers lives so deeply inside the misery and insanity of both Lewis’ inner lives for so long, that it’s hard to come back from that place.

What I loved best about this book, was the historical drawing of Meriwether Lewis, the sense of exploring a new land for the very first time. The idea that in discovering something, in both the naming and measuring of it, its mystery – its beauty and purity – can be diminished. Meriwether and Bill both sense a kind of malevolence beneath the surface of this new country, this United States; it is suggested that the Enlightenment is a myth and a deception. It never happens because no one is ever actually “enlightened.” A current of social malevolence carries forward to the present age, where undertones of cruelty towards society’s weakest members – through the seemingly benign institutions of baseball and golf, for example – still exist.

“Melancholy Fate” leaves the uninitiated reader wanting to learn more about Lewis & Clark. Though not always an easy book to read, I recommend it, particularly for people interested in American history, or those who, like me, have had experience with depression.

Where this country started – nee, how it started – and where we’ve come… there is a thread there, a link that is worth studying and ruminating over. Pritchett is an admirable writer and I look forward to following his career.


At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, granted it's been up for a month and I'm just now seeing it.. but WELCOME BACK!!!! I'd given up hope of ever reading anything on your blog again. It's so comforting to read your amazing wordsmithing. Pep-Up games couldn't have come at a better time either as I plan my second solo kindergarten party. Where are all the other parent volunteers????? As always, you ROCK! XOXOX K


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