1682. The French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and his ragtag crew of Frenchmen and Indians travel by canoe down the Mississippi River. In what is now New Orleans, and with the “permission” of its native inhabitants, he claims the entire drainage of the river for France. Four years later he returns, this time sailing into the Gulf of Mexico to establish a colony at the Mississippi’s mouth. Because the chronometer hasn’t yet been invented he has no way of knowing the longitude of the river delta. He fails to detect it from the Gulf, sails past it to the coast of present-day Texas, and plants his colony there. By turns La Salle broods in his compound and obsessively searches for his lost river as one by one his colonists die, some killed by natives, some eaten by alligators, most victims of disease. And while their numbers shrink their apocalyptic frenzy and convulsions increase, foreboding their monomaniacal leader’s fate.
La Salle is told by means of journal entries and letters written by two alternating narrators, La Salle himself and his grousing, epileptic cartographer, Pierre Goupil. As the novel unfolds and his colony wastes away, La Salle concocts visionary schemes and composes a play about Jason’s search for the Golden Fleece. By contrast, the bitter grumbler Goupil writes an unpunctuated, gritty series of journal entries that read like a seventeenth century version of Beat poetry. Their conflicting accounts negate each other, leaving readers to decide where the truth hides inside their lies. Between them, we glimpse the darkness of America’s ancient wilderness in all its horrible beauty.
“Ingeniously crafted . . . A hair-raising tale.” – Washington Post Book World
“Brilliant.” – The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A vivid and sometimes shocking narrative of what exploration in the early American wilderness was really like.” – The Grand Rapids Press
“There is much to admire in this fascinating study, but nothing more than the way Mr. Vernon has strung together his ‘edited’ fragments to tell a large story in a small space, creating a work of art that seems, on the surface, to be utterly artless.” – New York Times Book Review