Reinventing the Sundance Kid

  • Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid, seated at left, with the Wild Bunch, a band of outlaws that also included Butch Cassidy, seated at right.

    Getty Images
 

Sundance: A Novel
David Fuller
352 pages, hardcover:
$27.95.
Riverhead, 2014.

What if an Old West legend left the outlaw life behind to embark on a mission to find his lost love? David Fuller's second novel recasts the fate of Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, better known to history and movie fans as the Sundance Kid, who allegedly perished along with Butch Cassidy in a 1908 shootout in Bolivia. In Sundance, the former train and bank robber is fictionalized as Longbaugh, who emerges from prison in 1913, bent on locating his missing wife, Etta Place. With a suspenseful plot that sweeps from Wyoming to New York, Fuller transforms the wily bandit into a heroic and determined rescuer.

The Los Angeles-based author thoughtfully evokes a man at odds with his own shifting nature. Once adept at relying on intuition, Longbaugh is a changed man; his glory days are behind him, and a newfound caution awakens him to the reality that "in life, stories are always defined after the fact." He is, as he is forced to admit, "no longer certain of the edge delineating action from prudence." As Longbaugh searches tirelessly for Etta, he gets glimpses of lives unlike his own – in a boardinghouse, an opium den and overcrowded tenements – even as he's pursued by both a Wyoming lawman and an Italian gangster who's after Etta.

With its twisting plot and occasionally brutal scenes, Sundance entwines the pain of romantic separation and the urgency of Longbaugh's quest with historic events, including the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, and he brings in real-life characters such as Lillian Wald, a humanitarian and nurse.  Fuller deftly places Etta at pivotal historic junctures, putting her shoulder-to-shoulder with strong-minded characters and giving her a fascinating, outsized role nearly equal to Longbaugh's in his outlaw days.

Fuller captures the grit and glitter of a modernizing city: "In the midst of more people than he could have imagined, he was unseen and anonymous. The city could not only hide him, but here he could slay his nickname and bury it." But Longbaugh's past catches up with him in the end and offers him the chance for a new beginning, culminating in a surprising – even controversial – act of mercy.

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