William Eastlake was a highly regarded American novelist in the 1950s and 1960s, but his reputation began to sink like a stone in the late 1970s and by the time of his death in 1997 he was a forgotten figure. I would argue that this obscurity was largely undeserved, yet understandable. After all, the author himself is on record as saying, ” When you’re dead, you’re dead. I don’t care what people will think of my work when I’m dead.’ But it is undeserved because Eastlake began writing about the American Southwest long before Cormac McCarthy or even Tom Robbins. His Southwest was one “whose comic and tragic dimensions, as well as its hard beauty, encapsulates American myths and nightmares much in the way that Faulkner did with his Yoknapatawpha County.”
Eastlake was born in Brooklyn in 1917 to English parents. His family soon relocated to Caldwell, New Jersey. A few years later his mother would be permanantly confined to a mental institution and William and his younger brother would be sent to a boarding school, where they would remain until graduation.
After high school, Eastlake took to the road and worked his way across the country. He ended up in Los Angeles in the early 1940s and worked as clerk in Stanley Rose’s bookshop. This shop was a hangout for West coast writers such as John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, Clifford Odets, and Theodore Dreiser. Eastlake ‘s time there was important for two reason’s. First, it was while working at the shop that he first committed himslf to writing. Secondly, he met Martha Simpson, a painter, who he would marry in 1943.
In 1942 Eastlake joined the army. After basic training he was assigned to Fort Ord to “look after” Japanese-American draftees. This proximity to Japanese -American troopes would lead him to express his frustration and contempt for the suspicion and racism that Japanese -Americans faced during World War II.
As American involvement in the war increased, Eastlake would later be transferred to a replacement company. He would see action in D-Day, and having survived, would fight in France and Belgium. He received a Bronze Star for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge, where he was seriously wounded.
After the war, Eastlake and his wife travelled around Europe for several years. In 1950, the Eastlakes returned to Los Angeles. In order to support his writing and her painting, he borrowed money and became involved in real estate speculation. During this time, Eastlake often visited his brother- in -law at his summer home in the Jemez mountains. This inspired Eastlake to buy his own four hundred acre ranch in the Jemez Mountains near Cuba, New Mexico.
Eastlake’s ranch was located between a Navajo Reservation and an Apache Reservation and he became especially friendly with the Navajos. He often hired them as ranch hands. More importantly, he would learn much about Navajo customs and beliefs from his friends and neighbors that would mark his fiction.
It was during his time in New Mexico that Eastlake began to appear in print. His first stories were published in 1954 and in 1956, his first novel Go In Beauty was published. In 1958, he brought out The Bronc People. In 1963, Portrait of the Artist With Twenty-six Horses saw daylight and in 1965, Castle Keep. Eastlake subsequently published four more works of fiction before his death in 1997.
Lyric of the Circle Heart
Eastlake’s first thre novels form a trilogy which he would later title Lyric of the Circle Heart. I will try to smmarize their contents.
Go in Beauty (1956) is the story of two brothers, George and Alexander Bowman, who fall into spiritual, and in Alexander’s case, literal death. The book is set in the New Mexico part of the Four Corners region , which Eastlake fictionalizes as the Checkerboard, and the story revolves around the troubled relationship of the brothers. Alexander runs off with his younger brother George’s wife. The wife, Perrette, is a fancy easterner who has never warmed up to life in the sticks and George really doesn’t protest too much. Paracelsus, the oracle-like medicine man, has predicted that something out of the ordinary will be stolen from Indian country and with this theft will come drought that will plague the land. And so it does. The prophecy becomes the reality around which the story revolves.
Alexander and Perrette flee to Europe where they lead a life that is almost a parody of the Lost Generation. Alexander does succeed as a writer, penning stories set in the Checkerboard region. As he wears out his material he wears out his life, because his guilt will not allow him to return home to recharge as a man and artist. He evetually becomes more and more dissolute until he commits passive suicide by allowing himself to murdered in a Mexican back alley, which is the closest he can come to home.
Alexander’s inaction has upset the balance of nature at home, which results in drought. Perhaps he is not guilty of theft, but he is guilty of allowing himself to be stolen, and the results are the same. The plot is more complicated than this , for it involves a sin of omission on George’s part, one which he allows to consume him, rendering him as unable to act as his older brother. Alexander hides in writing and George hides with the Indians. Writing and helping the Navajos are ways of avoiding the self. Even so, Eastlake ends the novel on an affirmative note. What was stolen from Indian Country- Alexander- is returned for burial and the rain has returned. From nature’s perspective, balance has been restored. The people of the Checkerboard, can “go in beauty.”
The second novel of the trilogy, The Bronc People (1958), is a rite-of-passage story that focuses on the quest for selfhood of another pair of brothers: Little Sant Bowman, son of Big Sant and Millicent, and Alastair Benjamin, the African-American boy the Bowman’s take in after his flight from an Albaquerque orphanage. alastair had been placed in the orphanage by Indians who had witnessed his escape from the burning house in which his father died. His father, called the Gran Negrito, had been the proprietor of the Circle R Ranch and the owner of a watering hole much needed by George “Big Sant” Bowman of the Circle Heart Ranch for his thirsty cattle. The novel opens with the argument between the two, escalating into a gun battle that sets off the fire at the Circle R. Two Indians serve as commentators on the fight, which neither man wanted, but leaves the Gran Negrito dead nonetheless.
As the novel unfolds, Alastair discovers the details of his father’s death. He must come to terms with his anger at his adoptive father and Big Sant must deal with the guilt he has carried around for years. Meanwhile, Little Sant searches for an identity as a bronc rider, and his mother, Millicent, sifts through several religions trying to find her place in the world. The book is also peopled with a broad cast of characters, including a priest who has gone native; Afraid of his Own Horses and The Other Indian, friends of Little Sant and Alastair; My Prayer, the old Indian shaman; and most notably, his white counterpart, Blue-Eyed Billy Peersall, an old Indian fighter who now realizes that the frontier people and Native-Americans should have joined forces to combat the “civilized” easterners instead of each other.
The final novel of the trilogy, Portrait of the Artist With Twenty-Six Horses, appeared in 1963. Eastlake again depicts the coming of age of two young men set against the backdrop of Indian country. The action takes place in a single day as Ring Bowman and Twenty-Six Horses undergo rites-of- passage. Furthermore, like the central characters of The Bronc People, one of the protagonists must come to terms with a father figure while the other seeks fulfillment with his own calling in life.
Portrait is episodically structured around Ring Bowman’s recollections during the eight hours he is trappped in arroyo quicksand. His life does not flash before his eyes, but meanders, as does the story, through his consciousness as he struggles with questions of identity. He wants to know why this is happening to him. In coming to terms with himself he learns the lesson of coming to terms with nature as well. At the same time, Ring’s father and Twenty-Six Horses, his artist friend, search the desert for him and in so doing confront their own questions of identity.
In telling this story, the author employs a technique in which the narrator weaves disparate strands of story which in the end become “of a piece.” In this way, the loom that Twenty-Six Horses uses to create his Navajo rugs is an apt motif in the book. Structurally, Portrait consists of Ring’s present tense commentary (set off in italics) interwoven with a number of apparently unrelated stories from the past. Although these chapters and parts of chapters appear extraneous to the thrust of the novel, they all involve the common theme of death or near-death in some fashion: the death of Tomas Tomas, the death of Tom Tolbek, the near deaths of a poet, a Nazi, and the passengers of Clearboy’s white Lincoln- not to mention the near death of Ring himself as he fights to stay afloat in the arroyo for eight hours- all point to an existence that is hanging by a thread. This understanding of humanity’s tentative existence is an essential element in Ring’s coming-of -age.
Go In Beauty, The Bronc People, and Portrait of the Artist with Twenty-six Horses all went out of print in the 1980s. To rectify this situation, the author revised these works and sought to publish them in a single volume under the title The Lyric of the Circle Heart: The Bowman Family Trilogy. The volume would be published by The Dalkey Archive Press in 1996. Once again a great piece of fiction would be available to new generation.