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Custer’s Next-to-Last Stand

books and culture

Custer’s Next-to-Last Stand

A sly and funny revisionist take on an icon of the American West November 1, 2018
Arts and Culture

Armstrong, by H.W. Crocker, III (Regnery Fiction, 256 pp., $27.99)

“Well, everyone knows that Custer died at Little Bighorn,” the drug-addled cowboy author Eli Cash explains in the 2001 Wes Anderson film The Royal Tenenbaums. “What this book presupposes is … maybe he didn’t?”

Harry Crocker runs with that premise in Armstrong, historical fiction that follows Custer’s adventures in the Old West after his capture at Little Bighorn. Like Cash, Crocker, as he did in his terrific debut novel The Old Limey, goes for laughs.

“Heavy load,” Custer observes during an escape as an ally carries a comrade. “He ain’t heavy,” his accomplice explains, “he’s my brother.”

Much of Crocker’s language elsewhere pays homage to the ’70s—the 1870s. Bloody Gulch, the scene of Custer’s latest stand, stands as a place where men are men and Chinese men are “Chinamen.” If you want to “wet your whistle,” you do so with “sarsaparilla.” The s-word, “Sam Hill,” substitutes for the f-word as the favored curse. For readers jarred by the frequent use of “redskins,” Crocker occasionally substitutes “Injuns,” not exactly a concession to modern mores.

Sex roles, pronounced and persistent, transport the reader far from 2018.

“This is the West, Miss Saint-Jean,” Custer declares. “[M]en without women, nothing to write home about. Not every place is civilized.”

“A woman expects a man to be capable—to be handy—to do something, to be something,” the leader of a troupe of dancers tells Custer.

She explains to another woman, “Never do something when a man can do it for you. They’re the ones who need things to do—and they might as well do them for us. Our job, dearie, is to keep them busy, preoccupied, and entertained. Not a bad racket once you get the hang of it.” The males protect the females, and the females protect their roles. All this either amuses or annoys, depending on the reader’s conception of the past. But it seems, even if emphasized to the point of caricature at times, to describe the past on its own terms—not ours.

The story, told loosely as a letter to Custer’s beloved, reads as a scavenger hunt of cowboy literature—a genre beloved by Dwight Eisenhower and other alleged simpletons but regarded by critics as ranking somewhere between romance novels and detective fiction in value. Custer collects Chinese acrobats and beautiful can-can dancers here, Yankee and rebel cowboys there. The last-in-class West Point ’61 graduate gets a tattoo—“I had rarely seen a tattoo before, even on sailors, and you can imagine my dismay when Scalp-Not-My-Woman (who was unmarked herself) told me that this was part of my induction: I was to be tattooed as a Boyanama Sioux”—from his Indian captives. A battle between beleaguered townsfolk and their corporate masters ensues, with Custer, of course, leading the good guys. The boy-general, here a man in temperament, appears fonder of strategery than of “charge,” but reflections on his previous disaster escape the printed page. A treasure hunt naturally concludes the action.

Armstrong, published by Regnery Fiction, styles itself as conservative fiction. Crocker’s characters embrace rather than rebel against the gender roles of their time, and they discuss Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and other recently departed political figures of their times. But the author does not look to offer a tract under the guise of a novel, an increasingly common approach. With the literature aisle reading more and more like the politics shelf, conservative fiction, a subgenre that consciously places a political descriptive in its name, curiously seeks not to mirror politicized fiction from a Right perspective, but to write from a perspective largely devoid of politics. One sees this, at least, in Crocker’s offering and also at the website Liberty Island, a leading repository of “conservative” fiction whose qualification for that designation mostly stems from its abstention from overtly political themes.

Armstrong seeks to change neither your mind nor the world. It succeeds in its modest aspirations—to tell a few jokes, and to tell a good story. Crocker’s character makes for a fitting symbol of the tiny “conservative fiction” genre: not dead, but marked—with a tribal tattoo, in faux-Indian Custer’s case—as something other than what it is. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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