When was the last time it was said of a comic novel that all conservatives should read it not only to improve their understanding of practical political philosophy but primarily because it is wildly funny? I can’t remember. Conservatives aren’t usually that funny (since Reagan at least); but it can be said anew about Armstrong Rides Again! a new novel by H. W. Crocker III.
First, a little background to explain the book’s appeal. This new book is the second in a series of novels that has Custer surviving the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Styled as letters from Custer to his wife Libbie about his continuing adventures in the Wild West, the celebrated Custer tries to travel incognito under the assumed name of Armstrong Armstrong.
The first book, Armstrong, explains how Custer miraculously survived his (not quite) Last Stand. Crocker is both a novelist and an historian, so there’s real history and learned speculation in the Armstrong books; and, thankfully, no grandiose tricks like: “What if Custer had survived—how would that change history?” Instead, it’s about action and adventure, and Custer’s character—courageous, bold, teetotaling, sure of himself (though not always right), a dog- and horse-whisperer, an admirer (as well as a fighter) of American Indians, and slavishly devoted to duty. Those who have read Crocker’s other books on General Robert E. Lee or British and American history know that he excels at this type of narrative.
The first third of Armstrong Rides Again! is the best comic Western you’ll ever read. But the last two-thirds will pique the interest of political readers, and reads as if Michael Anton’s 2016 “Flight ’93 Election” had been adapted by a less irritable Evelyn Waugh into Western satire.
Most themes raised by Anton—and certainly most political themes of the last four years—appear in the book in an unobtrusive, clever, and natural way. The narration is pure Crocker: Custer, having escaped several thousand deadly Lakota and Cheyenne warriors at the Little Bighorn, becomes a soldier of fortune in a mythical Latin American country with quizzical observations on events and those around him. That’s where the fun begins.
Crocker, like Anton, is a Californian, and part of the book takes place in San Francisco with Custer meeting the real-life adventurer and writer Ambrose Bierce. Nor is it hard to surmise that Crocker and Anton, who were active in California politics when it still boasted Republican governors, see the transformation of California into a one-party Democrat state as an existential threat to America.
The satirical intent of Armstrong Rides Again!—beneath the laughs and near continuous action—is clear. The revolutionaries in the book are bloodthirsty and evil, but the real target of Crocker’s ire is what we might call the enablers of the radicals; all those allegedly rational, intelligent advocates of compromise (appeasement) who do not understand the actual stakes involved or what sustains a polity (patriotism, faith, and a common understanding of history, not “science” and “reason” or “trade”).
Given that this is all expressed amidst fierce battles, volcanic eruptions, and comical monologues, Armstrong Rides Again! is a remarkable achievement; as satire it is in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief and on par with his Scoop, yet with deeper political meaning for today.
The advantage of it being expressed as a comic novel, is that it not only makes the subject matter palatable to people who otherwise might not bother to expose themselves to conservative ideas, but that it allows the reader to step back and gain some perspective on today’s real dangers.
For Crocker’s fictional Latin American country is not just at war with itself but is on the brink of destruction. The stakes are high; and Custer, his multilingual, Latin-quoting scout, Ambrose Bierce, and a Latin American king are among the very few who understand those stakes. Their understanding can help us make sense of our own precarious political position.
Read this book; pass it on later to your teenage sons and daughters (merely as a funny adventure story—they’ll get the political point, and not resent it, because it entertains); and give it as a gift to conservatives and progressives, even to a liberal, if you can find one today. In the likely dark days ahead, satire like this will allow us to keep our sanity when everyone around us is losing theirs.