The Revenant by Michael Punke (originally released in 2002, but being brought out again by Picador) would make a great work of nonfiction. Mr. Punke is primarily a nonfiction writer—his other two books are works of Western history—and he’s a talented researcher with a keen understanding of the times he depicts, so the setting is vivid and the reader is given a solid grip on the stakes. But Punke’s choice to render this story as a novel causes me concern. A novel should provide a sense of strange interiority, the welcome shock of encountering an imagined human soul who presents on the page as both real and unreal, familiar and alien. Punke fails to clear the novel’s higher bar.
The Revenant takes place along the Missouri River. It’s 1823, and not too long since Lewis and Clark opened up the northwest quadrant of the country for business—primarily, at that point, for the fur trade, in which all the characters of The Revenant, in one way or another, are involved. There are merchants who’ve set up operations to sell to the trappers and trade with the Indians. There are soldiers, garrisoned on the Missouri to provide security against foreign nationals or hostile natives. And, of course, there are the fur men themselves.
One of these men, Hugh Glass, is the kind of character for whom the phrase “competence porn” was invented. He’s a master woodsman, a sharpshooter and game hunter, and, perhaps most importantly, a survivalist. The story gets going when he’s attacked by a mother bear, and the damage he suffers is catastrophic. Here he is, under examination by a fellow trapper:
Glass was shredded from head to foot. His scalp lay dangling to one side, and it took Harris an instant to recognize the components that made up his face. Worst was his throat. The grizzly’s claws had cut three deep and distinct tracks, beginning at the shoulder and passing straight through across his neck. Another inch and the claws would have severed Glass’s jugular. As it was, they had laid open his throat, slicing through muscle and exposing his gullet. The claws had also cut the trachea, and Harris watched, horrified, as a large bubble formed in the blood that seeped from the wound. It was the first clear sign that Glass was alive.
Glass appears doomed, and the leader of the trapping expedition (under serious financial pressure to make good time in his trek up the river) decides to leave Glass behind, under the care of two other trappers: Bridger, a young and somewhat tenderhearted boy, and Fitzgerald, a lout who’s joined up with the trapping expedition to escape gambling debts. Their mandate is to watch over Glass, care for him until he dies, and then give him a proper burial. Not long into this job, Fitzgerald decides he doesn’t want to wait around any longer. This might be jackassed of him, but it’s not unreasonable: the trappers are squarely at odds with the local Arikara Indians, who pose a particular threat to anyone camping out for long stretches doing hospice work. Fitzgerald abandons Glass, and Bridger goes with him. Worst of all, they take his rifle and knife, assuming he’ll hardly be needing them once he’s died.
But of course, Glass doesn’t die. He survives his wounds, gets himself up and moving, and sets off to retrieve his stolen property. Along the way he eats rotten marrow from a buffalo carcass, develops an ingenious trap for field rodents, fights wolves, and is taken in and healed by Sioux, whose medicine man washes the maggots out of Glass’s back wounds using an astringent made primarily of buffalo urine and gunpowder. Glass falls in with a band of (mostly French) boatmen who call themselves voyageurs and pilot canoes up and down the river; later, Glass constructs a pair of “bullboats” whose hulls are nothing more than the dried skin of buffaloes. These episodes, which show what life was like on the Missouri, are by far the book’s chief draw and virtue.
The Revenant is subtitled A Novel of Revenge, but that’s not really what it is. Glass wants to put a hurt on the men who abandoned him, sure, but his real motivation is actually more prosaic: He wants his stuff back. This has a way of making the subtitle seem overcooked—worse, like a promise that isn’t kept. Readers of the American novel are familiar with tales of revenge, but we want our revenges to seem larger than this one, more cosmic and unsettling. We want the hunger for vengeance to consume the avenger with unholy fire; we want to feel like the whole world will topple headlong into an abyss if the wrong goes uncorrected. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold The Revenant to that standard (I’m thinking, of course, about Moby-Dick) but novels have to be judged by the company they presume to keep, and a novel about an American man seeking retribution beyond the limits of civilization should be asking more questions than this one does. Glass never even considers the possibility that frontier justice actually weighs in favor of the men who abandoned and robbed him, and a fair argument can be made that this was exactly the case.
Even the title, The Revenant, seems out of league to the emotional and philosophical stakes raised by this story. A revenant is a ghost, which leads us to wonder if Glass fears he would somehow disappear if he failed to right the wrong he’s suffered. Are we to think an injustice, if it’s let go of, leaves its victim somehow reduced? The novel doesn’t say; worse, the character doesn’t seem interested. It’s a problem, because a title should be more than simply the coolest sounding word that can realistically be applied to what’s between the covers. The injustice Glass suffered, the revenge he seeks—why does any of it matter?
The problem is big enough for one of the book’s characters, even, to voice it. “Why did you come to the frontier?” he asks Glass. “To track down a common thief? To revel in a moment’s revenge? I thought there was more to you than that.”
There should be more to a novel, too.