I'm always fascinated by the occasions when famous genre writers - the legends of the legendary, if you’ll excuse the horrible workplay - write literary or non-genre fiction. In many cases, they're still exploring those same tropes and themes and issues that appear in their fantasy or science fiction. Is it possible for them to write about destiny and free will without prophesies? Or create escapism without dragons? To craft heroes without Dark Lords?
Back before David Eddings set the world on fire (magical blue fire) with the Belgariad in 1983, he fiddled about in literary fiction. His first novel, High Hunt, was published in 1973. Contemporary and introspective, it is a far cry from the bombastic cosmic conflicts that would later make him famous. High Hunt is a bit like Robert Jordan's The Fallon Blood, in that publishers have tried - repeatedly - to republish and remarket it for the epic fantasy market. But that's where the similarities stop for, unlike The Fallon Blood, High Hunt is actually good.
High Hunt follows twentysomething Dan Alders as he returns from military service and tries to settle in back home. Like Eddings, Dan was posted to Germany (Eddings was in Germany during the Korean War, while Dan’s story takes place during Vietnam). And also like Eddings, Dan is a Washington native - in High Hunt, he returns to Tacoma. Not because he's particularly excited about seeing his old stomping grounds - rather, he's got nowhere else he needs to be.
And this is where the story begins: Dan, freed from service and, in fact, freed from everything. No girlfriend, no parents (his father is dead, his mother an alcoholic that he hasn’t seen for years), no friends - nothing. He’s got money in his pocket, a bag of civilian clothing and a vague plan to attend the University of Washington to get a graduate degree when it starts up next year.
Like much of High Hunt, what happens next is comes down to a whim - a supposed impulse. Dan, casting about for someone to spend a bit of time with (he's just out of the service, after all), rings up his semi-estranged older brother, Jack. They get together and, much to Dan's surprise, they hit it off. And, again, for the apparently lack of anything better to do, Dan gets absorbed into the circle of Jack's life. He moves in to the same trailer court, he meets Jack’s friends (and wife) (and mistress); Dan commits to being in Tacoma until his degree programme begins.
The “lack of anything better to do” seems like a lazy motivation - and, indeed, most of High Hunt is Dan doing things because they’re “on a whim” or the path of least resistance. Dan reiterates over and over again that he is a remote character, coasting through life without giving a damn. And at multiple opportunities he points out how people are telling him exactly that - how detached and cool he is. But, as High Hunt winds on, it becomes clear that Dan is far from the glacial figure that he likes to present: he’s a wreck. And his narrative becomes increasingly unreliable for it. His mother’s absence, his father’s death, his girlfriend leaving him - these have all taken their toll, whether or not he admits it (and he never does). His new connection with his brother is the anchor he's not had since his father died - although Dan and Jack are very, very different people, it means everything to Dan to have someone else in his life.
Of course, just because Dan is in a circle doesn't mean it is the best of circles. Jack's life is, to put it lightly, dodgy. His friends range from the lovable (Mike, caring for his sick wife - and the only solid marriage of the lot) to the deeply troubled Lou (an ex-Marine with PTSD the least of his issues). There's also Sloane, a wealthy, garrulous bear of a man who quietly owns all the property and institutions of their sordid lives (pawn shop, trailer court, bars, etc). Life is a matter of frozen pizzas, infinite drinking and adultery. Although he tries to claim his normal detachment, Dan tries to fit in - even going so far as to take his new girlfriend (the unfortunately named Clydine) to one of their all-mistress orgies. (It doesn't go well.) Dan pretends to be salt of the earth, a member of this somewhat-off-the-grid working class alliance, but he's not - he feels guilty when he doesn't fit in, guilty when he does.
The core of the store is the titular 'high hunt' - a hunt up in the mountains, at the start of the season, where things are particularly rugged and wildernessy and extra-Hemingway (who is invoked, as one might expect, a lot). Again on a whim, Dan, Jack and their 'friends' all commit to the hunt - even Lou, who, by this time, is a real problem. Whim stacks with whim, and, Dan brings another friend along, the nebbish Stan, his old college roommate (who is, of course, also in an awful marriage). Also, because 'bears' (an excuse transparent even to them), the chaps all bring handguns. A terrible idea, given the wife-swapping and grudge-holding that's now spiralling out of control.
Dan hopes that some time in the mountains - the purity of nature, the simplicity of the outdoor life, insert symbolism here - will clear his mind. He's drifting again: between Jack, Clydine and his new 'friends', he has attachments, but he's still holding himself apart. And, rather explosively, the high hunt does provide clarity: guns are fired (not always at deer), there's death (not always of deer) and even love (definitely not with deer). Removed from the trappings of civilisation, Dan and the others are reduced to their core manliness, and what the find isn't what they expected.
High Hunt is absolutely, unarguably about masculinity, and I certainly wouldn't recommend a copy to anyone looking for female characters with agency (or more than a half-dozen lines). That said, what High Hunt does do is tackle its core topic well, with complexity and warmth. Dan is between worlds: the structure of the army, the chaos of civilian life; his love of literature and poetry and books and learning and his appreciation of guns and hunting and the traditional symbols of machismo. He's equally comfortable - or uncomfortable - living in a trailer park or working towards his PhD. Dan isn't detached, he's scared. He sees a commitment to any one aspect of his life as a way of losing his own identity.
Through Dan's eyes, we see that other men have the same struggles. Sloane is wealthy and charismatic, but immature - afraid of life and growing up and acting the way he should. Jack's a good man, but spoiled - incapable of taking responsibility for his actions. Lou is incapable of adjusting to a world without borders and perimeters and strict rules. Stan has lost himself in his marriage, a man who doesn't see himself as his wife's equal. High Hunt is a catalogue of the ways and means that men can fail: their families, their institutions and themselves. The hunt itself isn't just an abstract symbol, it is an opportunity: a chance for the men to find a bounded, discrete opportunity, a bit of their lives that they can understand and control.
Eddings' empathy is what carries High Hunt - not just for Dan and the other people (even the reprehensible Lou), but for every element of the book, large or small. He conveys both simple and grand pleasures in a way that makes them absorbing, however alien they may be: from planing a gun barrel to stalking a deer in the mountain. Be it a mug of cold beer, breakfast on a campfire, a day clearing weeds from a garden, a date at the drive-in movie - Eddings has a knack of expressing the joy found in simple pleasures. It isn't Dan's feigned reticence that makes him a powerful narrator, it is when he finds himself enjoying life. Despite its set-up and, indeed, the sordid and depressing moments that punctuate this book, High Hunt is optimistic. Dan and his friends learn that being a man (and arguably a human being) is about responsibility: about taking ownership for their lives. That's not about detachment or immaturity or escape or being subsumed into a group, it is about looking after - and enjoying - what they have. And once they do that, anything is possible.
High Hunt is easily my favourite book of Eddings'. I would also argue that it is (by far) the best thing he wrote - and I say that as someone that cut his fantasy teeth (and still adores) the Belgariad. It is also interesting to see how this early book influenced Eddings' later series. There are similarities on the micro level, of course: Clydine, for example, is outspoken, spirited, short, quick-tempered - the mould later adapted for Ce'Nedra and every other female romantic lead. In Durnik and Polgara's nattering on about the joy of doing things simply and rightly and by hand ('simple Sendarian values'), the reader is rather clumsily told what High Hunt shows. And, hell, even Dan and Jack Alder / Aldur the god. Cute.
On a greater level, the Belgariad and Mallorean combined demonstrate the same rough character arc as High Hunt. Belgarion, Silk, Barak, Zakath are all characters that grow up and take responsibility for their (wives/family/countries/jobs) over the course of ten books. And the series' core internal conflict - Garion's famous 'why me?' - is a watered-down version of Dan's own existential angst. High Hunt does this all better, as it is focused solely on characters, without the distractions of saving the multiverse from the dark god Torak. But it is the character growth in the Belgariad, which is otherwise just-another-Tolkienade, that makes it so special, and it is comforting to see that in its purest form in Eddings' earlier literary work.