The Return Of Little Big Man

Published March 5, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

How many serious fiction writers are actually funny? To read reviews, you'd think novelists were laugh riots, stand-up comedians without mikes, but in fact it's rare to find one who's anything more than whimsical or maybe droll. Berger is an exception -- a writer who can be described without hyperbole as a really funny guy. In "The Return of Little Big Man," he flaunts his loopy aesthetic in the opening pages by gleefully borrowing a creaky Hollywood convention and resurrecting the centenarian Jack Crabb, who had died at the end of "Little Big Man." Now 112, bored by nursing home life and still "naturally devious," Crabb admits he faked his own death to escape an insufficiently generous publishing contract.

Crabb, a name-dropping, self-aggrandizing hustler who's constantly bluffing his way out of trouble, has an ear for comic turns of phrase. He recounts that after the white men arrived, the Cheyenne began calling themselves "human beings," the Sioux started referring to Indians as "normal people" and the Lakota christened whites "wasichu," which means "they won't go away." Here's how Crabb justifies a bout of egregious bragging: "Why boast about anything? Because that's what Westerners always done when in the presence of them from the East. It was expected of you, you felt you owed it to the landscape, but the real reason was you could get away with it to some tenderfoot who travelled by parlor car and never ate a meal except by knife and fork. And also I was drunk."

"The Return of Little Big Man" is not without its clunkers. One of Berger's less subtle attempts at humor, an ongoing deflation of Wild West lore, falls flat because he strings too many incidents together without an overarching design. Although the novel is nominally a western, its weakest moments are its action scenes, like the O.K. Corral shootout, which feel wooden and obligatory. And the one-dimensional character sketches are disappointing: Custer is self-centered, Annie Oakley stingy, Wyatt Earp a jerk. So what? It's impossible to view Berger's conceit -- a hapless Everyman popping up, virtually unnoticed, at major historical moments -- without thinking "Forrest Gump" (even though "Little Big Man" came first).

The complex and sad joke at the heart of Berger's novel is the selling of the West. When Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show hires Sitting Bull, the old chief's presence is valued on the most ruthless of economic principles, supply and demand: "Uniqueness," one character avers, "always commands the highest price." Sadder still is Sitting Bull's fate when he leaves show business and returns home, only to be shot and killed by his own people. But Berger, through his windy narrator, avoids sentimentalizing his points. For Crabb, the compensation for hawking one's memories on the open market is the chance to savor the resulting ironies (and, of course, the cash); a relic of the frontier, he takes sly pleasure in recalling that while his own funeral took place, he stayed "holed up in the room where they had the TV set" and "laughed at a Western movie on the tube."

By Elizabeth Judd

Elizabeth Judd lives in Washington. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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