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The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewisby Michael Pritchett
Synopses & Reviews
Massive debts and alcoholism. Drug abuse and failed courtships. And then, dead by his own hand, just three years after his triumphant return from the Pacific. Thus, on October 11, 1809, Meriwether Lewis became the tragic hero of one of the great untold stories of American history.
Now, for the 200th anniversary of his death, Bill Lewis, a high-school history teacher, is writing a book about his famous namesake that tells the rest of the story, one that includes the man who killed Alexander Hamilton--the traitor Aaron Burr--his daughter Theodosia (who believed she and her father would seize control of the western U.S. and Mexico and become emperors}, the writer Washington Irving, and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's wido, Mary. Meanwhile, Bill has problems of his own. his 14-year-old son Henry won't eat. He's gotten pulled into the troubled life of a pregnant student. And his clinical depression is back, which puts the fate of everything--his book, his family, his 13-year marraige to Emily, and his survival past 40--into even greater uncertainty. If he can only explain the mystery of why Meriwether ended his life as he did before Bill loses himself irrevocably in the compelling voice of his namesake.
In this rich, confident debut novel, Michael Pritchett not only authentically recreates the world through which Lewis and Clark forced their way but also finds extraordinary parallels between Capt. Lewis's doubt about manifest destiny and the contemporary uncertainty of the introspective modern male at a time when all our values are in question.
"'Pritchett (The Venus Tree) retells the saga of Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) from the perspective of Bill Lewis, a modern-day high school teacher who is writing a book about the explorer. Shuttling between the early 19th and 21st centuries, the twin narratives contrast the historic exploits of Lewis's life with the more mundane events of Bill's suburban existence. Lewis explores the Northwest Passage, makes Indian policy as governor of the Louisiana Territory, becomes peripherally involved with the traitorous Aaron Burr and takes his own life only three years after his return from the West Coast. In the present, a clinically depressed Bill, prone to suicidal thoughts tries to finish his book while dealing with a deeply troubled marriage, a teenage son with an eating disorder, a student who drops out of school after becoming pregnant and a dangerous flirtation with a friend's wife. Pritchett raises classic questions about the nature of heroism and society's need for (and treatment of) heroes. Oddly, however, Lewis the adventurer remains muted, while Bill's disintegrating life, with all its quotidian disappointments and conundrums, is heartbreakingly affecting.' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Like Lewis and Clark's epic trek more than 200 years ago, Michael Pritchett's novel about their expedition is an arduous journey. It's difficult and convoluted and full of frustrating detours, but, my God, what a trip this book is! Packed with strange characters and striking discoveries, 'The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis' explores one of America's most legendary adventures and surveys the emotional... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) landscape of its sorry hero. This is Pritchett's first novel, but, of course, it's nowhere near the first book about Lewis and Clark. By the time we reached the bicentennial of their launch from Camp River Dubois near St. Louis in 1804, scores of titles were available, including Stephen Ambrose's celebrated work of history 'Undaunted Courage,' Brian Hall's moving novel 'I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company' and Gary Moulton's 13-volume edition of 'The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition' from the University of Nebraska Press. Venturing into such well-mapped territory is a serious risk for an unknown novelist, and Pritchett compounds that danger by employing the panicked student's last resort: He writes a lot in this novel about the process of writing this novel. Given these handicaps, frankly, it would be surprising if 'The Melancholy Fate' worked at all; that it's so absorbing, insightful and heart-rending is remarkable. The book moves through two tightly woven plots about two men named Lewis separated by 200 years. In the present day, it tells the story of Bill Lewis, a dangerously depressed high school teacher who's working on a novel about Meriwether Lewis. Everything sets him off on this subject as he searches to unlock the mystery of his hero's troubled character. His wife is ready to snap under the strain of living with a depressed spouse and caring for their anorexic son, but Bill's thoughts compulsively drift back to Lewis. The expedition has seeped into his psyche, coloring everything he experiences, alternately exacerbating and alleviating his own despair. Indeed, most of 'The Melancholy Fate' is taken up with Bill's stories about Lewis' trip. It's a fluid structure in which Bill first considers episodes of the journey, then tells them to his family and friends and then narrates them in the rough-hewn, antique voice of his novel-in-progress. This results in a certain amount of redundancy, but the mix of modern and 18th-century events is strange and startling. Pritchett has created two distinct but entwined voices that provide an absorbing re-enactment of history and what goes on in a writer's mind. Though it's a fractured, impressionistic survey, 'The Melancholy Fate' hits many highlights of the original 8,000-mile journey. The course of a few pages might include repelling a bear attack, hunting buffalo, bleeding a sick woman, flogging a mutinous soldier or negotiating with Indians. For an early 18th-century explorer, the Louisiana territory and beyond held natural, animal and human wonders as alien as the moon. Lewis keeps testing his Hebrew on the natives in hopes of finding remnants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Frankly, it's hard to go wrong with such material. But Bill — the novelist within this novel — is most interested in drawing a richly conflicted portrait of a leader caught in the vice of mental anguish. Sometimes, Lewis 'had to withdraw,' he writes, to 'conceal how debilitated he was, how tremulous.' The task of reaching the Pacific frees Lewis from the more daunting challenges of domestic life, but the close confines of camp are a source of constant anxiety to him. 'He was never alone,' Bill writes with pained sympathy, 'but had the unlucky, rare gift for loneliness with a fellow human by his side. And wondered if God had a reason for making each mortal so singular and so painfully aware of the fact.' His great friend and employer, President Thomas Jefferson, had inscribed that immortal reference to the pursuit of happiness into the Declaration of Independence almost 30 years earlier, but for Lewis such a state of fulfillment is baffling: 'He had no idea what was meant by happiness. What was this happiness? How? Where? Had he met anyone happy?' Though a courageous explorer and a brave leader, he couldn't shake the sense that he was helping to create a world that had no place for him. At the heart of Bill's novel is an intense but never consummated relationship between Meriwether and Sacagawea. No historical evidence for this relationship exists, but Bill carefully weaves his speculation among the facts. 'She is the only necessity,' Lewis tells Clark in a rare unguarded moment. 'I — we — need her.' Lewis is wholly obsessed with the Indian woman. But, unable to express anything about his desire, he seethes at her husband ('a disease in boots') and curses himself for nursing yet another impossible affection. 'In no real world could he love her,' he admits to himself. 'None knew his hopeless and inward exultation. None would ever know.' Meanwhile, in the present day, Bill suspects that he 'is making a mess of his life.' He's right. Despite his wife's long-suffering devotion, he entertains impossible fantasies about other women and starves her affections with cynical wit. Crippled by 'his oldest adversary, Depression,' he's battered between bouts of egotism and self-loathing, knowing he's 'the one making other people miserable.' Both he and Lewis suffer the contradictory panics of depression: that one's life might be over, that it might drag on forever. This is a harrowing double portrait of the disease in action, so visceral and unrelenting that you can't help but suspect the author has fought the old beast himself. Lewis' end is a dark footnote in history: Though elevated to governor of Louisiana, he was terrorized by writer's block and bankruptcy until he died — gruesomely and probably by his own hand — just three years after the famous trip. As uncanny parallels between their lives accumulate, Bill feels that melancholy fate grinding down on him, too. Can the chaotic energy of his unhappy hero generate enough light for this lost history teacher to see his way out of darkness? Pritchett is a trustworthy guide for that harrowing journey. Ron Charles is a senior editor at The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In this rich, confident debut novel, Pritchett not only authentically recreates the world through which Lewis and Clark forced their way but also finds extraordinary parallels between Capt. Lewiss doubt about manifest destiny and the contemporary uncertainty that surrounds the modern male.
While writing a biography of his famous namesake, Bill Lewis, a high-school history teacher, nearly loses himself in his attempts to understand one of the great untold stories in American history—the adventures and subsequent suicide of Meriwether Lewis. Even as he struggles to illuminate that strange and exuberant time and and falls under the spell of the elusively seductive persona of Capt. Lewis, Bill finds himself fighting his own personal crisis, brought on by a clinical depression that threatens not only his book, but his job, his family, his 13-year marriage, and his own survival past the age of 40.
In this rich, confident debut novel, Michael Pritchett not only authentically recreates the world through which Lewis and Clark forced their way, but also finds extraordinary parallels between Capt. Lewiss doubt about manifest destiny and the contemporary uncertainty of the introspective modern male at a time when all our values are in question.
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