Robert P. Arthur,
Crazy Horse in Heaven
(Stonehall, 1999)

The cover of Crazy Horse in Heaven shows a line of horsemen on a ridge silhouetted against a luminous mushroom-shaped cloud. Each of these two iconic images reflects in turn a major theme of the novel -- atomic war and its aftermath, and the Old West.

From the opening pages, where we find a group of horsemen on a long trek in search of printed books, it might appear that we are in familiar "post-apocalypse" narrative territory where the remnants of civilization are being gathered in an effort to either rebuild or begin all over again. Let me tell you immediately that this first impression is wrong, dead wrong. Crazy Horse in Heaven travels through an altogether different terrain, one that lies well off most maps.

The atomic war has, as one might expect, radically altered the material world. But the catastrophe has also done much more, it has unhinged peoples' perception of reality. The memory of the old "pre-war" reality continually interferes with the interpretation of the new one. Among the travelers on horseback is a physicist who seeks an explanation of extraordinary and paranormal events by appealing to the ideas of theoretical physics. Opposing him is Pgeon, a man who embraces his distant Amerindian ancestor's world-view, including their gods.

At points in the novel one of these reality is strong and events are governed by its logical consistencies; at other points in the narrative the other reality's precepts prevail; at yet other points the realities intermingle giving an inconsistent, fantastical, nightmarish reality. The novel concerns itself with how the characters react and cope with this flux as the battle between the world-views rages, racing towards a final showdown. But the reader too is drawn into the maelstrom, deprived as you are of any safe perspective from which to judge which of the realities is the "true" one.

One of the clever devices employed by the author in achieving this unsettling effect is this: within the novel you are reading is placed another of the same name (it is one of the volumes located by the party of horsemen in their search). Excerpts from this virtual novel form chapters within Crazy Horse in Heaven, and within them is related the activities of characters we know from the "real" Crazy Horse in Heaven. Confused? You get the idea.

Several times it is offered as an overall explanation of events that individuals are trying to impose one or other of these world-views by the force of their thoughts or dreams. Dream has its own logic and in dreams it makes sense that the place where the native and scientific (or white man's) world-view last collided was at the Battle of Little Big Horn. We revisit Little Big Horn but only to see then that the real battle is much greater, one having its roots in the myths of pre-history. Also the showdown between the different forces is borrowed directly from the mythology of the Old West.

The ending of the novel does not paraphrase easily; in fact, no aspect of the story paraphrases easily. It is as if the author wished to transmit the experience of living in a world (a post-holocaust world) where the very ground beneath your feet (physically and metaphorically) is suspect and subject to unpredictable change. Crazy Horse in Heaven is not a book to everybody's taste but it is successful in transmitting this experience with an almost visceral intensity.

Readers of science fiction are known for their love of complex narrative design; however, Robert P. Arthur has arguably overstepped the mark in that the intricate design is so distracting that it may cause many readers to lose interest. Nevertheless, I found Crazy Horse in Heaven to be a tonic for the imagination even if at times the elixir could have been made a little more palatable.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 12 January 2002

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