We first meet Stephen Moran, the Brooklyn-born narrator of American Meteor, Norman Lock’s keyhole-view history of the American West, as a 16-year-old bugle boy convalescing in a Washington, D.C. hospital. Young Stephen has lost half his sight, and all his blue-eyed innocence, in the Battle of Five Forks, where “fear, misery, noise, cannon and musket smoke make for each combatant a kind of bell jar” within which “Life, its color and complexity, is reduced – like a mess of stew bones boiling in a pot – to an elemental dish whose simple flavors are rue and terror, hatred and self-love.”
Burdened as much by the valor medal he’s been undeservedly awarded as by the horrors of a Civil War he has barely survived, Stephen begins a gimlet-eyed odyssey that will take him ever westward; first to Illinois aboard Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train, then as company photographer for Thomas Durant’s Union Pacific Railroad as it blasts its way toward Utah’s Promontory Summit where, to Stephen’s way of thinking, America “forged its iron union and annealed it in blood.” Personal encounters with General (and later President) Ulysses S. Grant, poet Walt Whitman, and photographer William Henry Jackson all serve to propel Stephen, still wounded if no longer young, toward his own Manifest Destiny in the company of George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
While these and other notables fleck the wide terrazzo of Stephen’s post-war awakening, it is his more prosaic dealings – his friendship with a Chinese railroad worker, his rescue by a freed slave, and his love affair with a doomed Ute woman – that inform his increasingly jaundiced worldview and lead him, haltingly but inexorably, to the novel’s epic (and history-bending) climax.
None are so blind, it is said, as those who will not see. Lock, a literary stylist of the first order, deftly deploys optical motifs – oblique references to sight and vista, light and vision – as cairns by which to mark Stephen’s wandering journey. Not until he loses an eye, for example, does Stephen adopt “a cynic’s view of God and His principal creation.” Not until he’s focused his camera’s unblinking lens on the sun-bleached bones of a thousand bison rotting on a Wyoming prairie – casualties of the frontier adage “every dead buffalo is one Indian gone” – does Stephen find consonance with the wretched plight of the Sioux. And not until he’s given the gift – or is it the curse? – of foresight by Crazy Horse is Stephen, and so the reader, able to fit the events of his life into their broader and darker context:
“I remember how he stood and pointed into a distance that had no end or horizon but seemed to go on and on. My eyes – I had two of them in my dream – became tired and burned, and I would have closed them and looked elsewhere, but there was no turning away from it. Just as Jackson had done, Crazy Horse was teaching me how to see the world for what it is – for what it will be one day.”
If all this sounds a bit gloomy, or maybe outré, fear not. “American Meteor” is at its heart a frontier yarn of adventure and discovery, insight and yearning. Readers who savor the well-turned phrase (Lock is a recipient of both the Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award and The Paris Review’s Aga Kahn Prize for Fiction) and those who demand a little swash with their buckle both will find something to like, and maybe even to love, in this jewel box of a novel.
Chuck Greaves is the award-winning author of four novels, most recently The Last Heir (Minotaur). Visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.