The weird western series continues with the disappointing Moon Dance.
Raw Feed (1991): Moon Dance, S. P. Somtow, 1989.
This novel wasn’t what I expected. I expected an epic feeling novel, instead of just a long novel, with many short scenes and lots of violent confrontations between European and Lakota werewolves and a book with a feeling of history. What I got was a thoroughly literary novel of character; a study of alienation and the beast within with the werewolf a symbol of social and personal alienation (the most extreme example being Johnny Kindred’s multiple personalities) and the lustful id (much of Freud in the dream sequences); long, minute descriptions of characters and their relationships; and some Indian mysticism.
Let me explain. This novel is full of alienated halfbreeds. The most obvious one is Teddy Grumiaux, half-Sioux, half white. All the werewolfs are half-breeds, of course. All these characters are biological halfbreeds, psychological halfbreeds, and cultural halfbreeds. They are torn by their “genetic” heritages and the conflicts of good and evil in themselves and the pull of two cultures. The Indians represent, in their holistic philosophy, an integration of man’s propensity for good and evil, compassion and ruthlessness, lust and love. It’s no accident Johnny Kindred begans to integrate under them. It’s also no accident that this novel gives us a bit of the noble savage in the Indians. They, unlike European werewolves, are not lustful creatures preying on the innocent. They see themselves as part of a great circle of nature serving a function as human and wolf. While we have the psychopathics Major Sanderson and Cordwainer Claggert as the evil whites, we see little evil in the Indians.
However, it is not fair to Somtow to say he breaks morality along racial lines. After all, white Kindred is the werewolf, symbol of the moral and philosophical integration we must have. Speranza, our viewpoint character, is attracted to the evil European werewolves but ultimately risks all for Johnny Kindred. (How does Kindred know enough of her life and thoughts when she’s away from him to narrate the story to Carrie Dupre? Seemingly through a mystical, telepathic bond never really explained.) The evil of the Europeans and whites is more a symbol of universal human evil. The characters of Johnny Kindred and Teddy Grumiaux (a profane train urchin I started out hating a lot) were compelling. Multiple personalities in a werewolf are interesting. Speranza was a good, but not great, character torn between evil’s repulsion and the attraction to the evildoer. Count von Bächl-Wolfing was a relatively minor, but well-drawn character, not as ruthless as Natalia Petrovona. The latter embodied the psychology of wolf but little human. (Yes, this book does, as Edward Bryant said in his Locus review, have an incredible number of urine references, but I liked Somtow giving the werewolves very wolf-like traits.)
But what I missed in this book was a sense of history. I felt, despite the Indians’ (who really are specific to the book’s time) presence, that this book could almost take place now. The characters, especially Claggart, seem modern. Claggart is so sleazy he seems current. I know the West was capable of producing just as much evil and sleaze as any other time, but the gamut of his offenses — homosexual rape, gambling, torture, necrophilia — seems too modern as does his mystical vision of evil and man. Major Sanderson and his fanatical hatred of Indians seems cliched. To be sure, the West had men who preached genocide and Manifest Destiny together, but Sanderson seems to have only the most superficial relation to their appearance, not soul. I wanted a novel that brought the elements of Dakota Territory — miners, soldiers, gamblers, Indians, railroaders, merchants, whores — together. I got mention of almost all these groups but not a sense of being in the Old West. I didn’t really get a sense of place in the Black Hills scenes either. (This is probably hypersensitivity on my part since I’m very personally familiar — unlike the vast number of stories I read — with the setting of this story.)
The mystical battle at novel’s end, the Moon Dance, was interesting but was too long. Structurally, I thought the novel failed in it’s 1963 sections. We are given a predictable ancestral-evil-from-the-past-claims-narrator subplot. We are never given a lot of detail on the activities of the awakened psychopath Jonas Kay (and I would have liked his life past 1885 told, especially the Laramie Ripper part). The whole conflict between him and Preston is vaguely defined. The novel’s end, after the Moon Dance is finally done, seems too hurried and the resulting fate of Johnny Kindred seemed trite.