Arts Etc: Books: Fiction - Where Buffalo Bill Meets Robert Downey Jr ; Matt Thorne Hates Historical Novels - but This One Is Delightfully Unhinged; the Congress of Rough Riders by John Boyne WEIDENFELD Pounds 12.99
Thorne, Matt, The Independent (London, England)
Historical novelists come in different breeds. There are some (such as Lawrence Norfolk or Sarah Waters) who use the genre to make significant statements about storytelling or our perception of particular periods. Then there are those dreary types who write historical novels because, as I once heard a bestselling author tell an adoring audience, "it's like having your own country house in the past."
If John Boyne wanted such a house, it would only be so that he could burn it down. He plays fast and loose with historical fact, and in his brilliant second novel, The Congress of Rough Riders, he combines a narrative about the adventures of Buffalo Bill with a contemporary story about Bill's great-grandson, William Cody.
I wasn't a big fan of John Boyne's first novel, The Thief of Time. A story spanning two and a half centuries from the perspective of a man who has stopped ageing, it was a little too cute, and the action never really transcended its central conceit. The Congress of Rough Riders, however, is a total blast.
The main focus of the novel concerns Buffalo Bill's love of showmanship. In the historical strand, Boyne shows how the first William Cody turned himself into Buffalo Bill and became famous for his adventures, moving from the plains to the stage and back again, falling in love with his own legend as he ended up in rodeo shows with his old rival, Sitting Bull, the man he held responsible for the death of his friend, Custer. In the contemporary strand, the main source of frustration between the second William Cody and his seventysomething father, Isaac, is William's refusal to help him in his desire to recreate Buffalo Bill's stage show, "The Congress of Rough Riders".
The highest compliment I can pay Boyne is that his novel is wonderfully unhinged. I started the novel uncertain as to how far I would read. I'm not a huge fan of Westerns in book form (movies are fine), and my only previous knowledge of this period came from Robert Altman's turgid film Buffalo Bill and the Indians. …