I've had the pleasure to be an early reader of Rick Harsch's latest novel "The manifold destiny of Eddie Vegas”. It is a very entertaining book, exceptionally well written and with a theme that will certainly unsettle you with its terrible truths.
While “The Manifold Destiny” is written for the experienced reader of sophisticate taste, Rick Harsch, devoid of the usual authorial arrogance, respects and is kind to his audience. Even if his book is written in an elaborate language and artfully crafted sentences there is always sufficient “story" to pique your curiosity and enough entertaining things unfolding on the pages to keep you reading all along the 700 pages. That and the manageable length of each chapter is a relief from the doorstoppers which seem to be so fashionable nowadays! Unlike the Gaddises, the Wallaces and other Don Dellilo behemoths, Harsch's works come in an acceptable and digestible word - count format.
In the "Manifold Destiny" two storylines develop parallel to each other. Both narrative arcs are separated by a few hundred years but merge towards each other as the narration reaches the end. One storyline develops in the present and follows two young men on their peregrinations between Europe and the USA, with the occasional flash-back to recent history: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Both men wrestle with father - issues at the same time their fathers struggle with their own toxic legacy.
The second storyline describes the adventures of the earlier forefathers of the main character, each of them a witness of, and a minor player in those bygone periods of heroic Americana myth: The Mountain Men, the Oregon trail, the Gold rush, the Indian wars, the Boot-legging...
Harsch debunks these historical and heroically chunks of Americana by reminding the reader that what drives these “heroic times” is nothing more than opportunism, greed, violence, racism, genocide and a continent-wide ecocide. The chapters playing out in the "present time" (Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam) do not need to be demythologized as they are remembered in our collective memory as violent moments causing enormous damages to indigenous populations. Still, here too, Harsch digs up lesser known horrific facts to avoid any possible tendency to describe war as heroic: Psychological warfare in Vietnam, Commercial competition of the private military militias in the Iraq, war crimes in Afghanistan and the blind terror of the all-seeing drones.
Harsch is at times funny, sad, angry or serious, but the total world view resulting from all this is bleak. The characters seem to move around on the whim and without clear goals. As already made clear in the witty title of the book, man’s destiny, (if destiny there is), or multiple destinies are largely dependent on the roll of the dice or the shuffle of the cards.
The metaphor of poker, or gambling in general, is seeping through all chapters. That one finds himself in an uncomfortable situation is often caused by a random chain of events.
"Fucking Keno" is after all the memorable first and damning opening sentence.
The feature of this novel, most likely to delight even the most blasé reader, is Rick Harsch exciting writing. Harsch is a true word - wizard, a sentence - crafter of rare talent. Cunningly and with a permanent twinkle in the eye he hand-picks words, kneads them to his liking and assemble them in elaborate phrases. His recounting of the history of the American West, using a vast array of highly sophisticated narrative technique has something highly eclectic and comic at the same time. Imagine James Joyce rephrasing the stories of Fennimore Cooper, De Lillo editing the action scenes written by Sebastian Junger or Gaddis correcting Raymond Chandler. Understandably, it is not an easy book, it is after all aimed at the more experienced readers. Any confidence with the literary techniques of American Pomo or Modernism will help appreciate the skills deployed in the novel. Reading notes are the “rigeur" for those who intend to fully enjoy the read.
And a great read it is. Harsch shows he is really a Master of the Word. At key moments of the novel, Harsch stops assembling sentences and offers the reader only words. Words in a series of lists; multiple page long lists of seemingly random words, you are likely to skim to proceed for further impatient reading. But these lists, which should be read attentively, preferably viva voce as in a religious litany, contain more than the eye first notices.
The last list, when it’s terrible secret dawns on you, will certainly shock you.
Rick Harsch has with his "Manifold destiny of Eddy Vegas” written a Masterpiece and as far as I am concerned, as good a candidate for the “Great American Novel” as any other more celebrated book.
You might argue that Harsch is lesser known than his best-selling peers.
That’s my point:
So was Melville in his days.
Highly recommended !