The epic tale of Danilo Lazich begins with his birth in an obscure region of Balkan Europe, when he is “cut out of his mother with a midwife’s septic knife.” Matt Pavelich’s debut novel, Our Savage, takes us through the legendary exploits of its intellectually and physically gigantic hero, from the rural village of his birth to Austria during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Butte, Montana, at the turn of the century, and finally ending up in a rough patch of Wyoming.
The character of Lazich is one “constantly hectored by possibility.” A preternatural know-it-all even from the time of his conception—he claims to remember events from his time in the womb—the child is cast out of his father’s home at the age of eight for his insatiable hunger and his uncanny ability to catch his father in a lie. “The boy grew and grew, and talked and talked, and he was only ever lucid when penetrating his father’s lies. The child, the creature, would not permit him any lies at all.” Thus begins one of the characteristic patterns of Lazich’s life: that of wearing out his welcome.
After exile from his father’s house, Lazich becomes “Vuk Hadjuk, the wolf,” a teenage highwayman who liberates all who cross his path of not only their goods but also their most cherished beliefs. Most notable among these victims is a passing priest who confesses that Lazich “stained” his soul by informing the priest he could never “do as much in service to God or man as the mercenaries who marched Christ up Calvary.” Soon, though, Danilo Lazich becomes Daniel Savage and flees the Balkan backwater (a place “fertile only with suspicion”) for the court of Vienna, where he enjoys the favor of Empress Elisabeth. When he is implicated in the Empress’s murder, though, Savage flees to America with the help of Branko Prpa. In return, Savage must agree to marry Prpa’s shrewish daughter, Stoja, and take her with him.
Much of the prose in the early part of the novel has a characteristic deliberate cadence: “The men returned to the hut to eat. He finished, rocked forward, rested his head on his arms, and slept without dreaming. He woke alone in the hut and went outside. Only just dawn.” The short, muscular sentences summon up an unnecessary formality that reeks of the contrived, gimmicky voice often employed in pastiche literature. It is only later, when “Danny” Savage settles in Butte, that Pavelich appropriately discards this characteristic stuffiness and starts imbuing his prose with startling reality. A madam’s dialogue describing a new girl to the bawdy-house illustrates casual dialect and sharp humor in such a way that a reader can envision the appropriate hand gestures to accompany her acid wit. “New to my house. Calls herself Annie Contreras, and she ain’t gonna be one of the friendly ones, Cecil, but I’m gonna charge for her like she was nice as pie. Fact, I might charge more cause she’s mean. You goddamned men, you like that.”
Like its prose, the novel’s plot takes on an intriguing complexity only once the main character is settled in one place for some time. Before landing in Butte, Savage’s travels lend the novel an impressive breadth with vivid landscapes and individual character portraits (including those of Emperor Franz Joseph and a two-headed female oddity), but these early chapters often read like a stilted fable consciously and laboriously working toward the more interesting second half of the novel. There, a decidedly more three-dimensional Danny Savage is placed against the sprawling and flush backdrop of turn-of-the-century Butte, where the politics of the mining industry and the relations of other Serbian immigrants provide an authentic historical background.
Butte’s first prospectors were Chinese immigrants who came to mine gold and stayed to work on the railroads and start businesses. But copper was found in 1876, and in a matter of weeks the miners’ shacks grew to a full town. A tent city of 300 quickly grew into a boomtown with five banks, seven breweries, three cigar factories, and more than a hundred saloons. In 1899, the Standard Oil Company, through the purchase of numerous mines and smelters, formed a conglomerate eventually called the Anaconda Mining Company. All this is in place in time for Savage’s arrival. Riding toward Butte with Stoja, Savage observes of America that he “could have gotten off the train at any point and been home, at all points he was tempted—he’d never see all that needed seeing.”
Pavelich begins his novel with an excerpt from W.H. Auden’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poem, “Age of Anxiety.” Auden’s is a fascinating and hair-raising eclogue that affects the novel throughout its long journey. In the poem everyone is drunk, trying desperately to have a good time. The whole scene takes place in a bar where four people find each other, all lonely, all full of problems. Through alcohol they begin to search out semi-conscious adventures, which ultimately go back to their roots. The long poem is a spiritual journey taken in an attempt to arrive at a place where relationships can be formed and faith can be established. Herein lies the penetrating quality of Our Savage: Literally and metaphorically, the novel is a quest illustrating the endless possibilities of the character known variously as Danilo Lazich, Vuk Hajduk, Daniel and then, finally, Danny Savage.