- - Friday, September 2, 2011

REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON
By Stephen Harrigan
Knopf, $26.95, 368 pages

Lamar Clayton, a taciturn, old-fashioned West Texas rancher, is the central character in Stephen Harrigan’s well-crafted novel “Remember Ben Clayton.” As a young man, Lamar rode on a number of the great cattle drives from Texas to the stockyards in Kansas and lived the cowboy’s life in full.

More significantly, the experience altered his life for good and bad, but mostly the latter. He was captured at the age of 12 along with his elder sister, Jewell, by a band of Comanche who slaughtered the rest of his family. He was with the tribe for nearly two years, joining its war parties and becoming wilder than the wildest Indian, until he was traded by his captors for ransom money offered by U.S. military officials.

When the novel opens, however, the Wild West is long since past, World War I has just come to an end, and the 70-year-old Lamar is in search of a sculptor to memorialize his son Ben, who died in the trenches of France and was buried near where he fell.

Lamar settles on middle-aged Francis Gilheaney to do the job. Better known as “Gil,” Gilheaney is an Easterner who moved to San Antonio from New York City, a sculptor with a national reputation but best known in Texas for a memorial he built at the Alamo.

Lamar and Gil are strong-willed and self-centered men, and the vicissitudes of their difficult relationship (they admire each other, but there’s a deep mistrust, too) provide the novel’s story line, which Mr. Harrigan keeps moving at a steady pace.

Each man harbors a long-hidden and deeply destructive secret that he has struggled to keep from his family but that becomes uncovered as events unfold - tragically in Lamar’s instance, less so in Gil‘s.

Mr. Harrigan is a Texas novelist who specializes in stories and nonfiction about the West. So it comes as no surprise that “Remember Ben Clayton” is rich in detail about the Texas landscape and the men and women who live there. It is a telling measure of his skill as a writer that he seamlessly weaves three major themes throughout this new work without allowing his characters to bear the weight of being symbols rather than real people.

One theme concerns the troubled relationships between Lamar and his son Ben and between Gil and his daughter Maureen. Overpowering and often cold, both fathers have distanced themselves from their offspring in ways of which they’re not fully aware. Lamar allowed Ben to leave for war without saying goodbye - a failing he hopes the sculpture of his son will help remedy.

For Maureen, a gifted sculptor in her own right, it is the need to move away from her father’s potent personality in order to see just how good she is at what she wants to do that motivates her character.

Mr. Harrigan’s second theme is the past. In some of the novel’s best passages, he describes how the war in France destroyed the countryside, rendering the past no longer visible: “Some of the towns … had simply been blasted from the earth until hardly a stone remained and a person who had lived there all his life could not even tell where the main street had been.”

Against all this destruction, Mr. Harrigan pits his third theme - the power of art to give substance to memory and preserve what is no more. After a visit to Reims, whose cathedral and its sculptures he saw as a young man studying art in France, but which have been destroyed by German bombs, Gil doubts the power of his own work to have any lasting import.

At Reims, Mr. Harrigan writes, Gil was “confronted … with the death of monuments, with the annihilating human contempt for what was supposed to be sacred and therefore safe.”

Yet all is not lost. Both Gil and Lamar experience epiphanies of a sort that allow them some peace. Gil finishes his sculpture. It’s placed on a remote spot of Lamar’s land, a place Ben loved. Lamar allows his estranged sister, Jewell, who remained with the Indians after her capture 60 years earlier, to offer an Indian blessing on the sculpture, an act that reconciles him with Jewell and with his own until now mostly despised Indian experience.

Mr. Harrigan is a gifted storyteller whose images at times are as rich as those in the best poetry.

Stephen Goode in the author of “Violence in America” (Franklin Watts) 1982.

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