If you were prone to imperious pronouncements, you could do a lot worse than to say that there are two kinds of novels: the kind in which the characters take a trip, and the kind in which they stay home. It's hard to go wrong with a journey story; from "The Odyssey" to "The Lord of the Rings," the potential for adventure and novelty is built right in. But the stay-home novel, the modern novel, excels at psychological nuance. Sure, you can learn a lot about people when they're thrust into extraordinary situations, but that's not where most of us live our lives.
With "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company," Brian Hall applies the stay-home novelist's attention to character in writing about one of the greatest true-life adventure stories, the Lewis and Clark expedition. The two explorers -- sent into the American terra incognita by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 to find, among other things, a Northwest Passage (there wasn't one) -- have already served as the subject of several unremarkable novels and, in 1996, a bestselling nonfiction account of their expedition by the late Stephen Ambrose. Meriwether Lewis in particular exerts a powerful allure for writers; not only are his journals famous for their stately prose and scientific exactitude, but he met a tragic end, killing himself in 1809, a mere three years after he had returned from the wilderness. (Some believe that Lewis was murdered, but Hall maintains that "the weight of the evidence has always been on the other side.")
Lewis is the main focus of "I Should Be," but like many contemporary novelists who base their fiction on historical fact, Hall tells the story from several points of view. Beside Lewis, there's his less complicated partner, William Clark; Toussaint Charbonneau, a crafty French trader who served as a translator for the expedition; and Charbonneau's "wife" ("slave" is an equally applicable term), the young Shoshone woman Sacagawea, who turned out to be the more helpful guide despite having a newborn son to care for.
It's been fashionable for a while to declare Sacagawea the most interesting figure in the expedition, a person who because of her color and gender hadn't gotten much attention before. And Hall summons up a convincing sense of what life might look like to a contemplative intelligence that's been thwarted by the violence and hardship of her lot. (Admirably, Hall doesn't stoop to ahistorical, "Dances With Wolves"-style idealization of Native Americans; Sacagawea was kidnapped and enslaved by another tribe.) Sacagawea makes a strong counterpart to his Lewis -- both are displaced souls, vexed by yearnings they can't satisfy -- but Lewis is the character that preoccupies the author.
Hall's aim, as he explains in an exemplary author's note, was to "imagine character traits and unrecorded incidents that I believed provided plausible explanations for certain historical questions." Those questions include, for example, why Lewis, when asking Clark to join the expedition, wrote that Clark would be receiving a captain's commission when Jefferson had only authorized a lieutenancy; Hall uses this small detail to show how Lewis' aspirations always seemed to just outstep his achievements, to his perpetual embarrassment. Then there's Lewis' suicide, the fact that he never married despite many halfhearted flirtations and what Hall terms his "curiously insoluble loneliness."
In Hall's Lewis the elements of greatness can't be divided from the dross of human failing -- in fact, they seem to feed each other. There is his courage, which Clark decides is really fearlessness, "an absence, not what people usually meant by the word," coupled with bottomless energy. At other times, Clark sees what we'd call depression, "a look in his eye sometimes like a man who'd fallen into a river in winter and was drifting away. That dull look that didn't say save me, but let me go." Both spring from a propensity toward detachment that Clark can't quite sort out.
The daily journals that Jefferson had asked Lewis to keep ("I remind you to question the natives closely about the mammoth ... Of course, take down a vocabulary ... Some communications to me during your expedition will no doubt need to be in code" -- the polymath mania of our third president makes for some of the book's drollest passages) become a source of torment for the explorer. When he's not brooding over a "hackneyed phrase" or a "falseness" that inevitably "creeps in" to his descriptions, he's lashing himself for not writing at all. This perfectionism makes Lewis miserable, yes, but it also makes him a writer, and a good one.
In the middle of their adventure, Lewis begins to worry that his desire to escape the world, to leap into the utterly unknown ("what made his heart beat high was not what was on the map, but what wasn't") will be satisfied only fleetingly. At his favorite moment, out in the middle of the uncharted wilderness, chasing the head of the Missouri River, "he still does not want the river to end; yet he so much wants to discover its end. And he loves this night, and at the same time he feels he will die from waiting for the sun to rise." Clark, by contrast, hears Sacagawea nursing her baby at night and tells himself that the moment he gets home he'll "get himself a wife and beget himself a family and lie awake at night and listen to his own wife suckle his own children in his own home."
Despite their different dispositions, or perhaps because of them, Lewis loves Clark, possibly in the romantic if not the erotic sense of the word, and Clark's devotion, though more ordinary, is still powerful. The two men don't quite understand each other, but only Clark has the sense to recognize that; for Lewis, Clark is another kind of ideal, forever receding. But I could go on like this for pages. The relationship between the two and, though I can mention it only in passing, the way Hall depicts the volatile interactions of the white men and the Indians they meet during their journey, are like prisms with an infinite number of facets that you can turn over and over in your hand forever. Like real human relationships, they're endlessly, inexhaustibly fascinating.
Our next pick: Rudolf Nureyev -- beautiful, arrogant and brilliant -- and the tragic country he abandoned