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'The Dying Grass' magnificently dramatizes the almost forgotten Nez Perce war

William T. Vollmann brings vibrant new life to the collisions between the US Army and the Nez Perce. 

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    The Dying Grass
    A Novel of the Nez Perce War
    By William Vollmann
    Viking
    1,376 pp.
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The Dying Grass, the fifth volume in William Vollmann's sprawling and sometimes tedious “Seven Dreams” novel-cycle (following 1990's “The Ice Shirt,” 1992's “Fathers and Crows,” 1994's “The Rifles,” and 2001's “Argall”), is 1,400 pages long. The Viking Penguin hardcover costs $55 and weighs four pounds. It has whole segments of dialogue but no quotation marks. It concludes with 200 micro-typed pages of glossaries, footnotes, and source notations. The book's subject is the Nez Perce conflicts inside the larger pogrom-war between the United States and the Native American nations west of the Mississippi.

The warrior castes of many of those Native American nations had a treasured ritual they would attempt to enact during battle: A warrior would expose himself to risk, approach his enemy to within a hand's breadth, touch his enemy (often with a short staff specifically made for the purpose), and then – the highest mark of distinction – make it back to safety uninjured. The most common name for this practice was “counting coup,” and it was intended as a gesture of proud defiance in the face of possible destruction.

"The Dying Grass," which weighs as much as a small dog, protractedly dramatizes a slice of American history most Americans have never so much as heard of, and dresses out at twice the length of the next-longest entrant in this novel-cycle. William Vollmann is defying the ethos of an adult reading public increasingly enamored with reading children's books on their iPads and smart phones. The book is a decorated staff wielded in the face of an enemy who's sure of victory. With this great mass of pages – unapologetically vast, steeply erudite – Vollmann is counting coup on the Republic of Letters.

As noted, the story Vollmann unfolds in these pages will be new to most of his readers, although the general outline is predictable enough to be depressing: It's the old story of the US government making and then breaking treaty after treaty with every Native American people anywhere on the continent, cheating them, bullying them, pauperizing them, brutalizing them, and – as in the case with the Nez Perce under the leadership of Chief Joseph in June of 1877 – often driving them to armed conflict, to join the “warpath” in a desperate bid to avoid being herded like cattle into small and usually barren reservations. When Chief Joseph and his fellow Nez Perce leaders Looking Glass and Toohoolhoolzote and others went on the warpath, the task of hunting them down fell mainly to idealistic and fervently Christian General Oliver Howard and the men of the US Army.

In prose more intricate and layered and beautiful than any he's used before, and aided by striking page designs and innovations in type font and spacing, Vollmann brings to life his huge cast of characters, filtering their thoughts through a sensibility that's never been more keenly poetical. At one point, for instance, an embittered Nez Perce thinks, “Because we hope for something good, and the Bluecoats are so bad, some of us still wait on Sitting Bull,

      who Looking-Glass promises will soon come riding exactly here,”

and something about the odd line indentation actually helps convey the bittersweet wistfulness of the moment.

Readers savoring such moments might want to avoid reading the fine print of the book's appended sources, where Vollmann does his best to take the magic out of his own. In a note on a later scene, for example, Vollmann reports that although the original incident took place in an early August plagued by night frosts, when he visited the scene the weather was quite hot – as he tells it,  “I had to make another trip there in late winter to describe the place as I wished to.… My hope is that all these imaginings bring a kind of life to the raw sources.…”

But what Vollmann's describing here is the opposite of “imagining”; it's somebody paying for air fare and car rental specifically to avoid imagining. It's puzzling: If you're writing history, then write history and take your chances in the lists with other historians. If not, then not. But directing us to the factual source for each specific line of dialogue in your novel? What possible benefit comes from such obsessive fussing?

Fortunately, there's a great deal more going on in this dazzling narrative than simple reportage, as we follow the harried Nez Perce in their long last march: “In the fog, with TRAVELLER THE SUN orange-brown like an old grizzly bear tooth, they ride and walk toward the Medicine Line as they can.”

And throughout, the sharp decision to center so much of the narrative on pious General Howard pays off. He's a kind man with lofty intentions, beloved by his men, one of whom enthuses that “after President Lincoln you're the best man I've ever known” (although, pricelessly, the soldier then adds, “President Lincoln I never met, of course –”), and making him the agent of so much tragedy leaves the reader with no easy answers and a great deal of unfocused, not-quite-cathartic anger.

It's a rare historical novel that can manage this, and “The Dying Grass” does it almost continuously. The book is a thunderous, magnificently troubling masterpiece, a grim but spellbinding masterpiece. If this is counting coup, William Vollmann is our greatest literary warrior.

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