The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis
by Michael Pritchett
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Washington Post Book World
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 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 heartrending 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's 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 roughhewn, 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 reenactment 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's 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 Book World.