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Originally published Friday, November 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Melancholy Fate" | An exploration of madness

Meriwether Lewis kills himself in the grim and classically styled second chapter of Michael Pritchett's novel, "The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis."

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis"

by Michael Pritchett

Unbridled Books, 416 pp., $24.95

Meriwether Lewis kills himself in the grim and classically styled second chapter of Michael Pritchett's novel, "The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis." The language is archaic, and Lewis' hallucinations are agonizing: "Slowly, two worlds ground themselves into each other, like lovers, and eras'd his time."

Back here in the 21st century, the language of Bill Lewis is superficially casual and internally desperate. This modern Lewis is a high-school teacher and historian, writing a book about Meriwether Lewis and the Voyage of Discovery. It may kill him. The ravaging mental illness of the great explorer, whose thoughts and emotions he seeks to inhabit, is pushing Meriwether Lewis' modern-day chronicler toward failure and suicide.

Bill Lewis is giving way to his own chronic depression; a deepening chill in his marriage; and a dangerous affection for one of his students, Joaney, who is smart, pretty and very pregnant. Someone, probably her lover, has blackened her eye. Bill Lewis falls for her just as Meriwether Lewis does for Janey, the explorer's nickname for the pregnant Indian girl Sacagawea, whose husband Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian interpreter, knocks her around.

The Janey/Joaney parallel is one of many that Pritchett has stashed in his narrative for the reader to discover, a structure that could be all too pat and clever. But in this ambitious debut novel, Pritchett puts some unsymmetrical bends in the Lewis/Lewis tracks that offer believability.

The contemporary Lewis is in his second marriage, to a wife who seems more faithful and understanding than he deserves. She's also absorbed in worrying over their troubled teenage son, who is by far the most likable character in the novel. Meriwether Lewis, on the other hand, repeatedly decries his lifelong sexual drought: "God and his jokes! I will make you handsome, but also somehow offensive to women." Sadly, the author observes, "Lewis had everything to live for but a woman."

Pritchett, in the voice of Bill Lewis, knows his stuff when it comes to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and offers disturbing revisions of the great American legend. His Meriwether Lewis regrets almost everything about the voyage — calling it a "suicide mission" — and the world-shifting changes it will bring. "Oh Clark, why did we do it?" Lewis implores of his co-commander and only true friend. "What has it accomplished, after all? Show me one soul whose lot was improved." His visions of the coming new West torment him: " ... I see a new savage race of people coming, no less savage than the ones before. The Americans."

Historians have written of Meriwether Lewis' mental illness as one of the many immeasurable hardships he overcame with courage and resilience. But Pritchett's fictional Meriwether Lewis is so distracted by his desire for "Janey," and by her rejection, that he can barely function. Only Sacagawea's native wisdom and William Clark's strength save the venture from failure and death.

"One felt responsible for Lewis," says Capt. Clark in this novel, "And wished to be like him and to be liked by him. Without the help of others, and guidance and temperance, he would perish, one felt fairly sure." Clark is a fascinating character who brilliantly summarizes the triumph and ruin of the expedition in the novel's opening chapter. But it's his co-commander whose interior monologues haunt the pages of Bill Lewis' unfinished book and frame his own despair and apparent recovery. Apparent, because it's left mostly to the reader to decide how and whether Bill Lewis will get well.

Lewis and Clark are vividly drawn against historical landscapes that the author expertly understands. Pritchett seems less certain of himself in the Bill Lewis narrative, where some provocative leads are suggested and then abandoned. The book ends with a supernatural twist that seems contrived and rushed, in contrast to the believability Pritchett creates in earlier chapters.

It's a challenging novel that can lead you to reconsider one of our country's greatest adventure stories. If it also leads you to read the Lewis and Clark journals, Pritchett says, then his book will have served a valuable purpose.

Bellingham resident Bob Simmons is a former commentator for KING-TV and former writer for the Seattle Weekly.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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