La Floridanby Chilton Williamson, Jr.nAt the Moon’s Innnby Andrew LytlenIntroduced by Douglas E. JonesnTuscaloosa: The University ofnAlabama Press; 400 pp., $18.95nIn an expedition that began in 1538nand endured until 1543, Hernandonde Soto and six hundred men failed tondiscover in what is today Florida and thenLower American South that which theyncraved most to find — gold. Four centuriesnlater, a young writer, poet, andnnovelist native to the region trained hisngenius on records pertaining to thisnexpedition and thereby produced alchemicallynwhat De Soto and all hisnbrave men never seized on. At thenMoon’s Inn, first published in 1941nand out of print for nearly fifty years, isnpure gold — 24-carat poetry of a lusternthat shines among the pile of goldbricknnovels that contemporary Americann”literature” comprises. To say that it isnthe best work of fiction published inn1990 is to be guilty of a hilariousncritical understatement.nHere, as in all of his books, AndrewnLytle is preoccupied with the mostnmassive concerns of human experience:npride, valor, death, love, andnreconciliation. It may be that At thenMoon’s Inn owes something to Conrad’snHeart of Darkness, and it is evennconceivable that it is owed somethingnby an immediately recent novel, CormacnMcCarthy’s Blood Meridian,nwhich shares with it historical andnthernatic affinities. Yet Lytle’s imagination,nunlike the great majority of novelists’nimaginations, is essentially sacramentalnand allegorical, creatingntextures, effects, and layers of meaningnthat an equal majority of readers andncritics are unprepared to deal with. If innThe Velvet Horn, a later novel ofnLytle’s published in 1955, some of thensigns and symbols seem to eclipse onenanother, with At the Moon’s Inn thensignifications are as sharply immanentnas the stars that bore in from the blacknsky beyond Christendom, above Den32/CHRONICLESnREVIEWSnSoto’s westering fleet. When we considernthe novel’s thematic complexitynand the skillful subtlety of its prose, thenclarity of the poetic meaning is astonishing.nIn Lytle’s hands, Hernando de Sotonbecomes a tragic hero, and it is antribute to the novelist’s genius that wencan never, while reading his book,nimagine De Soto as anything else. FornLytic, De Soto is a man of his times,nbut under the illusion that he representsnan age of Spanish chivalry immediatelynpast, when the united kingdomsnof Aragon and Castile successfullynconcluded their nearfy mystical warfarenagainst the Moors. Like almost everynother tragic hero, Lytie’s De Soto isnwarned at the outset of his venture bynhis wife, who, having waited for hernhusband’s hand for 17 years while henfought with Davila in Nicaragua andnPizarro in Peru, now urges him, “Letnus take the goods you have won andnlive among the worshipful of ournstation. . . . Let us have some pleasurenin ourselves,” and calls Florida “an evilnplace”; by Cabeza de Vaca, one ofnthree survivors of Panfila Narvaez’snfatal expedition to that land; and, morenbroadly, by the old Marshal of Seville.nThe Marshal is a veteran of the fall ofnGrenada that occurred in 1492, thensame year Columbus discoverednAmerica. Calling the great discoverern”an alchemist” and charging that henhad “made such a hole in ChristendomnI fear me it may never benplugged,” he offers a toast before DenSoto and De Soto’s guests, the mennwhom the host has invited to back thenexpedition: “Senors, I give you poverty,nthat poverty of the Cross which isnSpain!” But he drinks alone; and thenhero, with his six hundred men innseven ships, departs for Cuba, fromnwhere the invasion of Florida is to benlaunched.nIn Cuba, De Soto breaks his second-in-command,nNuno de Tovar, tonthe ranks after learning that he has impregnatednDe Soto’s ward. Tovar, innsearch of a priest to confess him, goesninto the chapel where he sees a branchnwith four green leaves on it growingnout of the Sanctuary. “The sap. Fa­nnnther!” he cries. “In God’s house. . . .nThe wilderness grows here, too.” Thendevelopment of these two themes —nWestern man’s Faustian urge to pursuenunrealizable dreams, and the ambiguousnrelationship between Christian civilizationnand heathen barbarism —nconstitute the enveloping action of Atnthe Moon’s Inn, whose tide, a poeticnreference to sleeping out-of-doors,nsuggests the will to live an unboundednlife without enclosure, as the Creeknand Cherokee Indians live in the fleshnand the Europeans exist in theirnboundless desire.nAs a Southerner and an AgrariannMr. Lytic had in mind somethingnmore than the clash of Christian Europeannand American aborigine. ThenCreek and Cherokee tribes are peoplesnhe had studied and understood, and hisnsympathy for them translates into anhistorical irony that is both deeplynmoving and dramatically compelling.nThis sympathy reaches its apogee innthe novel’s third chapter, “The Wilderness,”nwhen Father Francisco of thenRock offers a Mass for Juan Ortiz, ansurvivor of the Narvaez expeditionnwho had lived as an Indian amongnIndians for 12 years before De Soto’snmen stumbled upon him. Followingnhis capture, Ortiz had been bound tonthe frame and ordered to be burnednalive by an old cacique horribly mutilatednby the Christians, then spared atnthe last moment by the intervention ofnthe cacique’s young daughters, whonafterward nursed him back to health.nFor a test, the Indians sent him tonguard the corpses of the newly dead atnthe burial ground, where he fell asleepnand dreamed that his benefactress wasnleading him beyond time and the seasonsnto “No-place, the last station,”nand a vision. Waking, he discoverednthat a wolf had stolen the body he wasnmeant to watch, but after he trackednthe animal and killed it with a stonendart the cacique ceremonially presentednhim with a purgative drink,nwhich he promptiy vomited at the oldnman’s feet. Oblivious to the Mass thatnis being said for him, Ortiz remains lostnin contemplation of his experience,nfrom which he is finally returned byn