by Michael Punke
272 pages, Carroll & Graf
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I am a total movie geek. In a pub quiz with a round on movie trivia, I am the guy you want sitting on your team. I pay attention to the credits at the end of a film. I’ll happily watch a good film over and over again, picking up on the subtle nuances of the actors’ performances or the little directorial tricks that I might have missed the first or second time round. I’m the guy who actually listens to the director’s commentaries on special edition DVDs. I love movies so much, I trawl the internet looking for upcoming movies that I can get excited about. There are more than a few of these websites around, but the best of them has to be uber-geek Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News. Here, the bespectacled hordes of the internet congregate to swap rumours or blurry photos covertly taken on the sets of upcoming movies. It is here that the very first reviews of new movies can often be found and the earliest murmurings of productions that have been given the Hollywood “green light” are heard. It’s the kind of staggeringly nerdy social forum few people would ever claim allegiance to, yet it is one of the most visited movie news sites on the intermationsuperhighweb. It was here that I discovered that Korean director Park Chan-Wook (who directed Oldboy, one of the most brutal, brilliant revenge movies of all time) and Samuel L. Jackson were attached to an embryonic adaptation of a book I’d never heard of called The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. My curiosity roused, I got hold of a copy of said novel and read it. Having finished the book, I read it again. Then I bought a copy for my brother in law. Just writing about it now is giving me the urge to pick up the book read it all over again. It’s that good.
Michael Punke’s first novel, The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass: mountain man, trapper and victim of a particularly nasty run-in with a grizzly. Savaged by the bear, he is left to die in the wilderness by his companions, who take all of his belongings before bidding him adieu. Through a mixture of resourcefulness, anger and luck, Glass survives and vows his revenge on those who abandoned him. There’s not much more to the story and that enables Punke to fall back on his extensive knowledge of the era of frontiersmen to pad out the tale with some great historical detail.
Glass is a wonderful character, an archetype that audiences will undoubtedly have seen before but will not be averse to spending a little more time with. Upright and dependable at the start, we see him grow darker and more detached from the civilized world as he becomes consumed with the idea of revenge. Too stubborn to die from his horrific injuries, he displays remarkable resilience and single-mindedness as he pushes himself to the limits of human endurance. By the end of the novel, his rage gives way to latent nobility that raises him above the level of his betrayers. Though not breaking any new ground in the characterization stakes, Punke writes so convincingly that it is easy to believe that the real Hugh Glass was of a similar personality. The supporting cast is deliberately sparse. This is novel about one man and his survival against the elements. Punke isolates his protagonist in the wilderness and by doing so forces the reader to empathise. The main adversary for much of the book is nature itself. We are with Glass as he claws the first few painful inches after the bear attack. We are with him as he sweats off a fever or hobbles across snow covered mountains. I cannot think of another book where the reader is brought so close to a central character, not by the strength of his personality, but through sympathy for his plight.
Punke’s writing is crisp and clear. His depictions of the American wilderness are both beautiful and engrossing, capturing the sheer terrifying scale of the then-uncharted land. The action in the story is convincingly told. The attack by the bear is swift and brutal; Punke does not revel in the gory details but does not shy away from describing the ghastly injuries sustained by Glass. Though the narrative voice can seem strangely detached at times, the curt style is used to good effect as Glass draws nearer to his prey. The tension is cranked to almost unbearable levels as we anticipate – and hope for – some kind of bloody retribution. Some readers may feel cheated when Punke does not deliver the expected climax, but that is one of the strengths of the book. So wrapped up do we become in Glass’ quest for vengeance, that we too lose something of our humanity – Punke brings out our own inner-savage as we thirst for Glass to take his revenge on those who abandoned him.
A historical novel with great big balls of steel, The Revenant is much more than just a boys-own adventure. Powerful and moving with a depth and richness which is completely immersive, it is a truly unforgettable book. Whilst some may find that the ending does not live up to the promise of the opening few chapters, it is still fantastic stuff and well worth picking up a copy. Alas, as with so many things on the internet, the rumour of the movie adaptation has come to nothing. That does not stop me dreaming of a kick-ass movie adaptation that would see this wonderful story brought to a wider audience.
Hereward L.M. Proops