In his 1997 novel The Saskiad, Brian Hall tunneled inside the head of 12-year-old Saskia White, imagining her as a heroic explorer à la Marco Polo. Now Hall successfully turns this idea inside out. I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company treats two of America’s most famous adventurers—Lewis and Clark—as if they were dreamy pre-teen girls, twitching with eagerness for new sensual experiences, unsure about what it means to be a grown-up in a constantly changing world.
It takes chutzpah to publish a quirky literary novel about Lewis and Clark on the bicentennial of their journey, when dozens of other tomes will hit the shelves. The Lewis and Clark expedition has become so central to American mythology that even history slackers should find the basic storyline engraved on the brain: President Jefferson sends two brave captains and their men to find a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Along the way they pick up America’s most famous squaw, Sacagawea, who translates for dozens of Native American tribes they meet during their three-year journey.
Some of the patriotic shine has come off Lewis and Clark’s reputation—after all, weren’t these great pioneers also harbingers of a Native American genocide? Hall crams his novel with would-be narrators jostling to vent their version of the story: Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea, her Canadian husband Charbonneau, and Clark’s black servant, York. Sacagawea’s sections are the most audacious, driven by Hall’s attempt to master an alien consciousness (much as he once evoked Saskia’s). They zigzag between virtuosity and clumsiness, something Hall acknowledges in his author’s note, saying of this “outsider’s fantasia on Native American themes” that “the most I can hope for is to be only half wrong.”
Sacagawea’s thoughts snake along a different synaptic route than ours, shaped by the landscape and her tribal folklore, with its fluid conception of life and death. They read like fever dreams. A Shoshone Indian, she was snatched by a rival tribe at the age of 10 and taken across the country. Hall presents the capture as a bloody, graceful ballet performed by characters whose lowercased Indian names blend into the action. He imagines Sacagawea slung over her kidnapper’s saddle, the heroine as disoriented as the reader: “There was blood on her legs, not her blood. There was a woman’s scalp on the horse robe, not her scalp.”
The book’s core is Meriwether Lewis, a thorny, resolutely American character: longing for independence and privacy, yet driven by a desire for glory and respect. Perpetually on the run from civilization in search of adventure, Lewis succumbs to despondency when life doesn’t live up to his expectations. At 27, Lewis arrives in Washington, summoned by family friend Thomas Jefferson—then president—to be his private secretary. An awkward diplomat, Lewis is relieved when Jefferson sends him on this momentous expedition to claim the uncharted land of the West for the United States. Jefferson and Lewis gaze greedily at a giant cartographic blank spot to the west of the Missouri River, “marred only by the dotted lines of conjectural river courses, looking like the footprints of a man lost in a vast field of snow.” Hall writes, “If the dinner table was Mr. J’s paradise, this blankness was Lewis’s.”
This blank paradise will soon be lost—or at least forever changed—thanks to Lewis and Co., who pave the way for settlers, traders, and the government to seize the territory from the Native Americans. Lewis tries to record his findings in a journal at Jefferson’s request, but there’s always something more urgent to do: dispense anti-venereal meds, ward off wild beasts, etc. Like some bizarre amalgam of Grizzly Adams and Woody Allen, he trudges through the wilderness berating himself for his failures: “A journal, it seemed, was a record of what Lewis didn’t think, what Lewis didn’t do. Thus, one morning, journalizing became another thing that Lewis didn’t do.” Maybe it’s odd that a novel about men of action should be so saturated with meditations on writing. But mythmaking is Hall’s great obsession, and he can’t help wondering how these characters at the heart of a great American saga construct reality—for themselves and for posterity. I Should Be Extremely Happy includes snatches of Lewis’s real journal and then imagines the man deconstructing it: “He can’t write that his real thought on discovering the Great Falls of the Missouri was, I have discovered them. That is no kind of sublimity. And in any case, was that his real thought? Or was it Here!? Was it Roar!? Was it all a tumult, and did thought only begin when he thought, How to describe it?” Lewis becomes paralyzed by the responsibility of creating a legacy, and comes to depend on his more easygoing partner’s journals—Clark with his charming neologisms (“atmispheer,” “watermillions”) that capture the grandeur and immediacy of their experience in a way Lewis never can.
Hall dwells on Lewis’s writer’s block, which increasingly plagues him after the explorers’ triumphant return. Lewis is expected to publish his travelogue. But should he reveal that his men ate dog meat—and enjoyed it? And “if it made such perfect sense to lie, then was any explorer’s account true? . . . Did Washington ever, in fact, call the whistle of a bullet charming, or when the slug barely missed him did he urinate in his trousers, as Lewis (yes) did, a second’s squirt, a shivering teaspoon?” Lewis may not feel up to the job, but Hall is, etching every page with a catalog of the men’s blundering interaction with Indian tribes, as well as their daily epiphanies and annoyances. Hall’s wayward prose works perfectly for most of the novel—he makes numerous pit stops to collect Charbonneau’s rakish comments or to follow Sacagawea’s wanderings. Unfortunately, the last 100 pages lose momentum. The return to civilization feels as anticlimactic to the reader as for Lewis, who dissolves into sour depression.
The author’s note suggests that Hall worries, like his hero, that readers will judge him harshly. Intent on shading in the filigreed detail that was lost in the tale’s transformation to legend, Hall in the process creates his own mythic figure in Lewis, entertainingly customized for our age: a rugged yet angst-filled outdoorsman who quotes Shakespeare, stands down bears, and tenderly worries over Sacagawea during childbirth. Most importantly, he’s self-conscious enough to anchor his own reality TV show. I can see it now: Survivor, the Lewis and Clark Years.