Breaking beyond the clichés that accompany Lewis and Clark along their remarkable expedition is a task that requires undaunted courage. Over the past 200 years, our vision of that journey through the Louisiana Purchase has grown as shiny and immutable as the image of Sacagawea on that dollar coin which no one uses.
Brian Hall puts it well: "The novelist's privilege is to play the fool, rushing in where historians refrain from treading." His new novel, with its evocative if ungainly title, "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company," pursues those brave men across 8,000 miles of unexplored wilderness, but it's most interested in the dark territory of Meriwether Lewis's mind.
Lewis has always been a square peg in a round hole of national myth. His personal and financial troubles, culminating in suicide just three years after he'd become America's most celebrated explorer, hover awkwardly in footnotes, and are expunged entirely from those biographies for young readers.
As a novelist, Hall is concerned with what can't be explained: the blank pages in Lewis's journal, the gnawing pathos of his death, the unresolved contradictions between official records. "I Should Be Extremely Happy" explores these fascinating shadows by dividing the story into its various voices: Lewis, who was President Jefferson's personal secretary; William Clark, Lewis's devoted coleader; Toussaint Charbonneau, a French fur trader who accompanied them into Indian territory; and Sacagawea, the young Shoshone mother who belonged to Charbonneau. The greatest pleasure of this novel stems from the way Hall portrays these principals, distinguishing not just their voices, but their startlingly different visions of a world in rapid flux.
Charbonneau, the pragmatic trader, speaks in pidgin English about his own crude concerns, never straying far from his envy for other possessions or sexual encounters.
Hall's portrayal of the young Shoshone woman who helped Lewis and Clark is the most demanding - and by far the most daring aspect of the novel. In the afterword, he confesses to considerable anxiety, but ultimately he was motivated by a "conviction that the poverty of a narrative excluding Sacagawea's voice would be worse than the presumption required to include it."
He shouldn't have worried: Her surreal vision of a world blended with native myths and tribal history provides the novel's most haunting moments. Beyond the alien sociology of her life and its ghastly hardships, Sacagawea's impressionistic testimony skirts along the border of coherence, conveying a strikingly un-Western way of thinking about time and reality that can't be captured in even the most sensitive museum diorama.
Hall's central concern throughout, though, is that mysterious leader Meriwether Lewis, who's troubled from the start by two questions: "First, what he was; and second, why Mr. J might have chosen him." Though he finds more than 300 new plants and animals and a rough passage from St. Louis to the Pacific, he never finds answers to those mysteries.
He's known Mr. J, the third president of the United States, since he was a boy playing on the grounds of Monticello, but he has no sense of why the great statesman should take notice of him. (One of the novel's many highlights is its witty portrayal of this idealistic president, spinning plans with the naiveté of an emperor who's used to seeing his whims realized - by slaves, minions, or the US Treasury.)
Jefferson loves bright conversation, but in his presence, Lewis "drags the words one by one out of the mud at the back of his throat." Official dinners are agony for him, locked in a dark mood that he knows makes him seem like "an intolerable prig." In this social torture, Jefferson's commission to lead 30 men up the Missouri River across an unexplored country excites Lewis as "a license, nay, a duty to run away. A miracle!" (As arduous as the plan sounds, consider that Jefferson's first idea was to send a single man to the Pacific, writing a journal on his own skin.)
The friend Lewis chooses to accompany him is the commander of his old rifle company in the US Army. William Clark had left the service to attend to family matters, but when Lewis offers him a position as captain, he readily accepts.
If only Lewis had been authorized to make that offer! Filling a strange ambiguity in the historical record, Hall creates a dark comedy of manners as Lewis sweats over a promise that the Army refuses to fulfill and Clark pretends not to notice. It's a perfect conflict to capture the spirit of this remarkable friendship between men who idolize each other, remain determined to please each other, and never understand each other.
In counterpoint narratives soaked with the language of their journals and letters, Lewis and Clark struggle to negotiate the uncharted new land of America and the equally challenging terrain of their co-captaincy. Clark strives to keep his pride hidden, while remaining thirsty for his partner's praise. Meanwhile, Lewis is vexed by the incompatible roles thrust upon him: diplomat, warrior, scientist, historian, and propagandist. Such is the nature of his dark mental state that long periods of success are quickly toppled by a moment of failure, a doubt about his abilities, or a flash of shame about his cynicism. It's a troubling, deeply moving portrayal of a man placed on the pinnacle of fame who just wants to sit on the porch and talk with his friend.
Here's literature that saves one of the greatest American moments from the pastel palette of mythology. Hall has constructed a narrative as bracing and surprising as the journey itself.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to firstname.lastname@example.org.