Andrew Hawkins, of course, is by far the most important and complex figure in Oxherding Tale. The characters of what might be called the supporting cast appear sequentially, often for a chapter or two at a time, each figure portrayed engagingly, wittily, but quickly, in the mode of a series of sketches. However, the supporting cast cannot be said to consist simply of flat characters, for the author is interested in the intersubjective dimensions of identity, in the degree to which Andrew’s selfhood is bound up in an ever-shifting web of relationships. This element is clearly marked in the novel’s preoccupation with telepathy and transcendentalism, and it accounts in part for the novel’s episodic yet unified plot structure.
The characterization of Andrew himself is achieved largely through the language of his first-person narrative. Andrew’s discursive perspective is wryly authoritative and urbanely observational, a frank departure from the tone of most picaresque narratives of youth. Such novels often attribute to their youthful protagonists a charming naïveté, improvisational verbal dexterity, and, underlying all else, an innocent, unspoiled wisdom. Johnson partakes of this tendency only to the extent that he deploys a protagonist whose utterances within the novel’s dialogue are dextrous, capable of trickster-like dissembling. Andrew’s narrative voice, though, rarely betrays a naïveté concerning his circumstances.
(The entire section is 511 words.)