adventure, characterization, David Fuller, historical fiction, Hollywood, honorable outlaw, New York City, Old West, Progressive Era, romanticism, Sundance Kid, suspense
Review: Sundance: A Novel, by David Fuller
Riverhead, 2014. 338 pp. $28
In this suspenseful, thoroughly enjoyable tale, Harry Longbaugh, aka the Sundance Kid, didn’t really die in Bolivia in 1908. How could he have? He was serving twelve years in a Wyoming prison for armed robbery, dreaming of a reunion with his beloved wife, Etta, from whom he hasn’t heard in two years. So when he’s finally released in 1913, he sets out to find her, unsure whether she even loves him still.
Trouble is, he’s a free man barely an hour when a seventeen-year-old kid provokes him into a duel. Naturally, Longbaugh’s quicker on the draw. Naturally, the boy’s death brings the local law after Harry. And just as naturally, when Harry traces Etta to New York City, a detective much smarter than the local Wyoming law follows him.
Shortly after Harry reaches New York, he gathers that Etta’s also on the run, but not from the law. Actually, it’s worse: Her political activities have made powerful enemies, including the Black Hand, a mafioso ring operating in Little Italy. Harry doesn’t know what to make of his wife’s social conscience and the new life she’s led during the past two years.
But that’s not all that’s changed:
He had heard of motorcars while inside, but seeing one in person made him keenly aware of the things he had missed. He was entering the world anew. He thought he heard the jingle of harness and clop of horseshoes as the motorcar passed, clearly his imagination, then was surprised when a horse and wagon came around behind him. Surprised, but also relieved. The old world was not quite banished, but it had certainly eroded.
Harry has seen electric lights before, but not the profusion that illumines New York. Trolleys, elevated trains, subway tunnels, and skyscrapers earn his admiration; I loved the scene in which he travels to the top of a skyscraper under construction. There are billboards and stores devoted entirely to men’s clothes, if you can believe that–the notion takes him aback–but certain things never change. Ever the honorable outlaw, he foils a pickpocket ring in the act and returns the bag of missing wallets and jewelry to their astonished, grateful owners. (Right afterward, Harry reappears at the scene, dressed in his new city duds, but nobody recognizes him, because he’s no longer a cowboy–a clever touch.)
I like that scene, which is more than just a bravura performance by our hero. Fuller means to show how Harry represents the decline of the Old West (and our romantic notions of it), while being self-consciously aware that he and his kind have ridden off into the sunset. But that’s where Sundance confuses me, because everything about it is romantic, so much so that the subtitle, A Novel, is misleading. It’s more like a typical Hollywood movie in which the characters are all one way or all another, so the conflict isn’t between complex people. Rather, it’s an opposition of single traits or ideas–evil versus good, justice versus exploitation, treachery versus integrity. And yet, Fuller has much to say about the Progressive Era that feels like politicking–labor conditions, women’s rights, disarmament, radical movements–which seems out of place in this context.
Harry’s an extraordinary guy. He can charm just about anyone, slip into and out of a building like a ghost, give expert marital advice, and is a remarkably quick study for things he doesn’t have a clue about. He’s even a dab hand at modern art. You’d never know he’d spent twelve years in prison–his psyche seems remarkably sound, without a drop of bitterness–and he’s a thoroughly honorable man. He’s a character to root for, and you keep reading just to see what amazing feat he’ll perform next. But he’s not a real person.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed reading Sundance (and couldn’t get the movie theme song out of my head). Fuller tells a tense story. He writes well, beautifully at times. He does shoehorn historical references into the narrative, especially toward the (not quite believable) end. I also wish he didn’t alternate stretches of dialogue in which you can’t tell who’s speaking with others in which he explains the characters’ motives, as if they weren’t already clear. But despite its charms, Sundance would have been much better had Fuller decided either to tell a tall tale or a realistic novel, and go at that whole hog.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.