The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas by Rick Harsch
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“For his magnum opus, Harsch reached into a bag of tricks left in a closet in Brussels by forgotten literary masters, and as the punning title might suggest, he attempts no less—and much more—than to come to grips with what empire has wrought, and how over the recent two centuries the United States rose to global economic mastery and a nuclear-proliferate madhouse. Harsch is able to render the story of Hugh Glass and the grizzly with dark humor and quotidian accuracy. Yet Harsch plays no tricks with time: his modern characters are modern and his historical rendering of their ancestors slot into their proper niches in historical time, vividly lit within historically corrective tales running from the days of the mountain man right up to those of nuclear testing, down the Oregon Trail, with the gold rush, into the nuclear age, Vietnam, and even Blackwater. Meanwhile, this book is a romp through history and the present, story after story told in the jargon of the mountain man of the Old West, the ‘Indians,’ the coal miners, the Joycean, and more.” —Klaus Hauser
“Rick Harsch’s word-drunk, transhistorical odyssey The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas—which feels at times like a rollicking collaboration between François Rabelais, Hunter S. Thompson, and Thomas Pynchon—is one of the most impressive novels I’ve read recently.”
—Steven Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternative History
“At first when I started reading Eddie Vegas I thought how much it reminded me of Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It’s just this love of language and willingness to invent (I mean recalcitruant—think about that one) is there and it’s got this multi-dimensionality of character and plot lines…but whereas DFW’s IJ looks to a calamity-filled future for our would-be empirical and exceptionalist happy nation, the further I went into Eddie Vegas the more I was reminded of Melville or Dos Passos’ America trilogy because this is more steeped in historical narrative and angsty present…and all that said, this has real range—Harsch’s ear is extraordinary—his frontiersmen speaking in a 19th-century Wild Western dialect that sometimes is laugh out loud funny. It’s a fucking hoot and a multi-dimensional and layered time-warping look at where we’ve come from in pretty much less than two centuries…the absurdities piling up as we watch the great-great-great-grandsons and granddaughters of 19th-century lawless shitkickers turn into today’s morality keepers of the universe. Great book. A must read.” –Larry Riley, translator of Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers (the second half of his great work that begins with The Seven Madmen).
Excerpt from The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas
‘Right here,’ Jimmy Blade replied with inarrogant pride, unsheathing to reveal, held in both hands the way one offers not a gift, rather a recognition, the rustic grandeur of his singular knife. The blade itself was fresh polished, sharpened evenly from hilt to tip and back the other side to hilt. The handle was wrapped tight in crimson leather, forming a tubular grip of such apparent mass it was difficult to conceive a substance beneath, as if it were a cylinder of nought but dense, taut hide. This effected a stylish contrast with the surprise wood of the hilt and butt, which were painted in checks of black and white.
‘Get this fer a bet a five yer getting a thievy bounty. No pirate ever flunged a finer dagger.’
Rance, entranced, needed no Bladely boast, gazing rapt at the knife all the while he counted five gold pieces from the purse sack tied to his belt and handing then to Gravel, the implicit arbiter, whose own allurement was coaxed aside by prophetic vision of a con unfolding. The first throw missed, to be sure, but by mere inches, the illusion of catastrophic ineptitude created by the slice of blade into eftesque feminine paw—yes, the point a mere handspan from the frog’s belly, which would remain a relatively massive target from the, come to reflect, relatively short distance of these ten paces: the next throw would be precise, the sawed off confidence man taking away six gold pieces rather than a mere one.
And so it occurred, from the explosion of energy that projected the blade ten feet in a second, this fling flung more brisk and violent, compact, splunk and thwang, splitting the belly centrally, sticking the bullfrog to the tree, Clem and Jem instantly releasing the two legs each they’d held, fore and aft frogwise, up and down that is to say, one each side of the target, lifting their now free hands aloft as they slunk away from the display, the spectacle of a giant bullfrog pinned to a giant tree, the three others abruptly approaching, effervescence sparkling their aspect, even the soothseer Gravel disimmuned by awesome of nature and artifice convergent to glamorous effect.
Jimmy Blade tugged the knife from the guts and tree, the victim jerking in its dying physios from cling-to-steel to back-barked before yielding to gravity in league with fate of fucked frog floppery. Blade wiped the blade on his pants.
‘Always keep it clean…looky there at the balance…handle’s a iron rod, see, looky there neath…can’t see here but they’s welded together, what the smith told me ‘welded’ swhat he said…on yer finger jes like that…’ The bullfrog came to rest belly up, hitting back flat and bouncing but little, his head a-rest on a tiny clump of earth so that in his gutspiring final minutes he may have observed the underjoints that worked out sounds he could not comprehend—let there be no doubt: the dying bullfrog understood nothing of the discussion regarding the unique tool that was the guarantor of the day of his demise, the way the iron and leather brought to balance the blade of slim sharp steel, a knife of such handiwork the likes of which Gravel and Hardupp had never seen, accustomed as they were to handbound country knives for close-up killing and so new to both aerodynamic design and its inherent avial aesthetic attraction, less serendipitous than even Jimmy Blade would have guessed. And so, rapt, the men and boy conversed excitedly above the frog in clustery oblivion not unmerciful, for when Rance shifted such that his bootheel crushed his head as if it were a ripefallen plum thus bringing the absolute of death to that amphibian’s life lengthy ordeal all that was lost was an eternal already misplaced by an apprehension proscribed by protean providence, a gust or a huff or a gasp without scorn, without charity, without taint of coursing blood or mirror clean of breathmist.
Read more reviews on Goodreads.
2 Very Different Interviews about The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas
- Author George Salis interviews Rick Harsch (from Salis’ Collidescope)
Punnery & Nunnery: An Interview with Rick Harsch
At over 700 pages, Rick Harsch’s The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas “is in part a story about what empire has wrought, and how over the recent two centuries the United States rose to global economic mastery and nuclear proliferate madhouse. But it is also an absurdist masterpiece and a metafictional epic rooted in American history (including the story of Hugh Glass, his journey along the Salmon River and the epic battle with Old Ephraim, a giant bear), and the impact of that history on our modern society (the movie by DiCaprio notwithstanding).”
George Salis: This is from a blurb for your new novel: “Rick Harsch told me that for The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, he reached into a bag of tricks left in a closet in Brussels by forgotten literary masters…” Can you expound upon these forgotten literary masters and what kind of tricks they left behind? Why are these tricks worth dusting off?
Rick Harsch: First thing is I like to do these interviews spontaneously so it’s as close to a real live interview as possible, and the only way to do it in this case is to rush through your questions. Right now it just turned 21:58. I’m starting. (I’ll put the finishing time here: 22:45.)
All tricks are worth dusting off because tricks are fun. The most obvious example in Eddie Vegas is the Rabelaisian list, and when you read the page before the list and then the list you’ll see that it was indeed worth it, as the result was inspired nonsense, words flung about at roughly the speed I’m typing this, some punnery, some nunnery, a lot of hijinks, some dada, indigestion, some flak, and a lot of innuendo.
GS: Why should the style of fiction be as important as the fiction itself?
RH: I wouldn’t say that it should be. I would say I like to imbue my own fiction with philosophy, poetry, and crack words together, shake them, abuse them, let them abuse me, and always see if a bit of extraneous meaning can be gleaned.
GS: Does the writer have any obligations toward an imagined or existing audience, or should they be free to do whatever they want?
RH: The writer has no obligations whatsoever in my universe and I would guess that most of the best writing is done when a writer feels free. Yet, famously, when asked if his characters ever did things he did not expect, Nabokov said they were galley slaves. I hope he meant the pun. That’s Nabokov, and if he was being sincere, which is likely, he was a very different writer from whatever kind I am. My characters are sometimes very intransigent, which means several different things, of course. Sometimes they simply will not do what I want, other times they will only do what I ask of them. But I’m not a very strict master. I don’t always make them go through what they’ve been led to expect. Probably what is most important in this regard is that ruthlessness itself has a variety of meanings.
GS: In fiction, what should the relationship between tragedy and jubilation, solemnity and humor, be?
RH: I started the game of Instagram, and I saw on there a quote by James Baldwin that started ‘The writer something or other…’ And my response was fuck you James, this writer does not or is not. I find those kinds of comments pompous. A lot of people criticize workshops, believing that they try to form a kind of writer that is a mere crafter, unoriginal, self-conscious literary yet much like the previously read workshop writer. There is an inevitable truth to that, because it is difficult to make an academian writer product without beginning with the false notion that literature, that writing, is one thing or another. It isn’t any one thing or it would die out—without flame, without drama, without tragedy, to the jubilation of the near-dullards, and the solemn, humorless quietude of the rest.
GS: Is this your magnum opus? Did you expect the book to be as sprawling as it is?
RH: Any writer would love to have a novel called their magnum opus so I hope so. I expected the book to be very much what it is. I have no idea where literary notions come from, but it’s an entrancing mystery, a very pleasing mystery. For example, when I was writing a book not published yet called The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman, I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and I had a ten day period free from distraction, and though I generally write novels roughly from beginning to end, in this case I knew that a coming section would be about a ten-day write, hand written, and would be about 100 pages in one of the red and black Chinese notebooks I used to use. So I thought I would leap ahead and write it during that free time, at ten pages per day on average. I finished it between 96 and 97 pages on the tenth day. How can you know that kind of thing?
GS: The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas is a book about American history. What do you make of the American present? Is the country irrecoverable, as Don DeLillo recently said?
RH: The American present suggests that the country is irrecoverable, but I guess Don DeLillo recently said that, so I think I will disagree. The U. (let’s leave Uruguay alone, and all those other countries that produce such great writers south of the US—Canada may not be different enough from the US to produce greater fiction per capita than the US)…. Right, so the US you have at present is a product, very much a product of an origin myth that allowed it to become what it is. A country with an origin myth that strays very far from the truth of its origins becomes something grotesque inevitably. The worst that nations can do, such as Italy and Germany in the pre-WWII years, is generally rev into being on the wings of a strange new origin myth. The US origin myth requires manifest destiny to immediately declare itself, and once that happens it requires feeding, and with an origin myth like that it becomes a roving killer, cannibal but not only cannibal—cannibalism is just another energy provider. So if I am right about this, unfortunately the country is not something that needs recovering so much as a slew of mediocre actors in white short-sleeve shirts and black-rim glasses coming together with brave women in tight, mid-calf dresses and a disdain for hysteria to find a way to kill it before the planet is irrecoverable.
GS: Having lived so long in Slovenia, is this novel an attempt to connect with your home country, as it were?
RH: No. It might be an attempt to rid myself of the need to write another novel about the US or that takes place in the US I did think as I wrote that I wanted to write what for me would be the definitive novel about the US. But I failed, as after a few years I realized that I needed to write about the Reagan years, and more specifically than in Eddie Vegas about the post-WWII horrors the US was involved in.
GS: How important is historical accuracy in fiction? Where should facts end and imagination begin?
RH: I would not presume to answer this question, even for myself. I can say that in the right fictional hands historical accuracy can be a very powerful force.
GS: As briefly as possible yet giving fair play to the subject, please describe your favorite scene or moment in The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas?
RH: Great self-destructing question. Briefly as possible and fair play. No, self-destructing is the wrong way to put it, but that limitation makes for an answer that would be different on different days, more so than most questions. The scene is somewhat early in the novel, when the historical parts are still in their earliest phase, the mountain man days in the US. Hector Robitaille has been mauled by a bear the way Hugh Glass was mauled by the bear, which must be noted was the same event that inspired that DiCaprio movie. At the time I wrote it, to find out what happened I had to come across a reference in an obscure book and then obtain the obscure book about Hugh Glass that some film writer must have also come across. Historical accuracy in fiction? Hector Robitaille is the name of one of my own kinfolk of olde, once deputy sheriff of Cheyenne, once stage driver between Cheyenne and Deadwood. Glass was mauled somewhere around what today is probably Nebraska pretty near the South Dakota border. In my novel it happens in Idaho. Yet the actual circumstances of the attack are pretty near accurate in my novel, far more so than in the movie. For instance, Glass had no son or whatever they gave him in the movie. What he had was a rifle, which a feller needed back then, and when the two people were sent to watch over him (one of them was the young Jim Bridger, but the other was far more responsible for that atrocity), presumably to watch him die, they began to fear they were going to die by Indian attack, and for no good reason as this Glass feller was going to die regardless. They couldn’t bring themselves to kill him, but they did talk themselves into abandoning him and they took his rifle. That probably saved Glass’s life, as that was as objectionable a part of what happened as the very horror of coming across a bear meaning no harm and getting mauled.
So that is one thing I do discuss in the novel. And Hector recovers pretty much in the stages that Glass did. He kills a rattler as he did in life (I don’t remember if he did in the movie). He also staves off a wolf attack using fire, and that really happened, but in the novel much is accurately made of the difficulties of getting a fire going. Where he is in Idaho is partly Flathead Indian country, rootgrubbing folk, and one night Hector, who had been taught by his Uncle to make a fire, is trying to get one going, having found all the necessary ingredients, but he’s weak, and he doesn’t have the best ingredients—I don’t want to spoil the book here—and he fails one night only to wake up in the morning to the smell of fired fish, for two Indians, Flatheads, are eating some fish they cooked at a fire they made. They toss a fish for Hector to eat. They don’t pay him much attention, but one makes fun of the way Hector was going at that fire-starting business, and they have a bit of a laugh, then they toss the best of necessary ingredients to Hector after showing him how to use it to make a fire in seconds. They lope off soon after and I consider my favorite part of the scene the aftermath, which includes all the things Hector thinks about these two Indians who did him such a nice turn.