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Find escapism in slavery tale

IMMERSED in factual nuance, exacting about sequence and presentation, the historian never steps to the side in his work to register amazement at circumstance. Instead, he aims to recreate a world that quietly overtakes the reader.

Think of the possibilities. Skip Horack certainly has in his historically inspired novel, "The Eden Hunter."

In the early 1800s, a Pygmy tribesman named Kau is captured in Africa and transported to America, where he is sold as a slave to a brutal innkeeper in the Mississippi Territory who occasionally puts him on display so travelers can gape at his tiny stature and his finely sharpened teeth. Kau learns English. He also crafts a canoe from the trunk of a fallen cypress tree in the nearby forest, biding his time. But when he prepares to flee, the innkeeper's young son tries to join him. The two struggle, and there is an accident with a hay hook. Kau has killed his best friend. Now there is no going back.

Horack sets his narrative moving confidently, and as the first scenes are dealt we feel an uncanny blend of legend, fact and invention closing around us like a forest in an uneasy dream. It is 1816, and we are tracking the movements of an African just escaped from captivity ? a slavecatcher already on his trail ? steering his crudely carved craft toward Florida, where he believes some possibility of liberation awaits.

The storytelling in "The Eden Hunter" unfolds episodically, following Kau's path toward his imagined freedom, the Eden that can't ever be recovered. At first, Kau joins up with a roving group of Creek Indians. They take him in but when they raid the cliff cave of some white highwaymen and are killed Kau continues on alone. Later he is captured by a black farmer and imprisoned in a chicken coop, then rescued by a renegade who calls himself General Garcon and taken to a fort on the Apalachicola River.

Kau is not a man given to brooding, though he is afflicted by both conscience and longing, by painful memories and dreams about the boy he has killed. He also feels a strong visceral pull from the world he left behind, from his dead wife and children back in Africa. But these inner compulsions are quickly overshadowed by the immediacy of the moment, its dangers and demands, its rare and thus beautiful gratifications.

Horack finds other ways to signal Kau's complexity and inner suffering ? through what he notices, what he is struck by. Garcon keeps a flock of messenger pigeons at the fort, and Kau is very taken by their homing abilities. Watching one of the birds, he "had begun to lose sight of that dark dot on the horizon when it banked left and to the south, then began a slow and lazy arch of a return." A woman who has befriended him sees him marveling. "I wonder the same thing you wonderin'," she says. "How do they know, right?"

Kau would seem to be the ultimate outsider, his impressions and encounters etching an alternative portrait of a wild frontier country, its unassimilated characters and improvised structures of order. But the further he travels, the less anomalous he seems. By the end of the novel, he is but one distressed fanatical presence among many, another lost seeker whose horror-filled wanderings make it clear that the rational decencies, the terms of the social contract we mainly take for granted, are still very remote.

Horack writes luminous, clean prose, holding the fantastically beautiful wilderness steadily in front of us, but also describing a scalping or evisceration with a matter-of-fact directness that reminds us how the terms of that world were negotiated and understood. He has a poet's tuned attentiveness, but never uses his sentences to preen. Reading his novel, I thought more than once of Cormac McCarthy ? not just of the calmly depicted frontier slaughter of "Blood Meridian" but also of the scoured post-apocalyptic vision of "The Road." What a pair of American bookends "The Road" and "The Eden Hunter" would make ? one traversing the ruins of a world that has spent its promise, the other bringing us in just as the whole bitter and doomed business is getting started.


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