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Texas-based writer Rod Davis is the author of the novels South, America and Corina’s Way and the nonfiction American Voudou. www.rodavisauthor.com
Gerald Duff is a winner of the Cohen Award for Fiction, the Philosophical Society of Texas Literary Award, and the Silver Medal for Fiction from the Independent Publishers Association. A member of the Texas Institute of Letters, he has published nineteen books. He published Home Truths: A Deep East Texas Memory with TCU Press in 2011. He resides in Lebanon, Illinois.
The multi-voiced, time-jumping narrative in Gerald Duff’s latest novel, Playing Custer, recounts the bizarre world and psychologies of reenactors, in this case of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. But the spine of the story is surely in the evolution of the longtime if cranky friendship between two Texans who after years of commuting to Montana to take bit parts in the outdoor drama wind up finding themselves in the prized roles. One becomes General Custer; the other transforms into Crazy Horse, the Sioux war chief whose daring spelled doom on the Great Plains for the 7th Cavalry on June 25, 1876.
As they head out of East Texas in a Toyota Highlander, Waymon Needler and Mirabeau Lamar Sylestine, a teacher of high school home ec and a computer tech, respectively, are already making an awkward mental and spiritual transformation from their banal lives into the mindset of history. For Needler, it will be an affirmation of manhood; for Sylestine, an Alabama-Coushatta full-blood, a much-needed link to rightful heritage.
Because each of these personal evolutions is based on pretending to be someone else inside an entertainment spectacle pretending to be history, the line between reality and fantasy is all but nonexistent. Duff’s choice to move the story along through the contemporary voices of Waymon and Mirabeau—or “Eagle Beak” as the latter prefers to be called—and an array of the actual figures who fought and died at the Little Big Horn—or “Greasy Grass” as the Plains Indians called it—serves to increase the cognitive dislocation. By the end of the novel, it seems completely logical that Waymon would think he is literally dying of Custer’s wounds, while Mirabeau is exacting righteous revenge against the nineteenth-century genocide.
But of course neither is the real deal. And thus, as the trip reaches Sheridan, Wyoming, where they’ve decided the Golden West motel is the best deal for a clean room while rehearsing for the big show, the two Texans are already squabbling like an old married couple. There’s a surreal element as they try to decide who, or what, is more authentic, and what, if anything, it all means.
The backstory voices from the actual Custer, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Gall, Capt. Keogh, Major Reno, and many others are drawn from actual history, although Duff acknowledges that any resemblance to fact is “purely coincidental.” Some of the characters are more well-drawn than others, but together they all work well to provide a context of lost cultures, bravery, hostility and hubris. Custer remains a damn arrogant fool and murderer no matter how you play it.
“Here’s what I believe happened 125 years ago and what we bring back with every reenactment. Back then, when the historical moment happened, the Sioux and the Cheyennes on one side and the soldiers and officers and General Custer himself on the opposing side weren’t really battling each other and trying to destroy every last man as they did. No, nun-unh.”
“They were playing their parts in a great dramatic production. They were fulfilling their roles and contributing their necessary obligation to the director of the piece and to the writer and the crew putting it all together. It was all fated and therefore—and here’s the kicker, Eagle Beak—it was meant to be from the foundation of time. That’s why it meant something then and means something today. Do you see what I’m saying?”
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