By EW Staff
Updated February 20, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Big, satisfying, and sudsy as an ice-cold Molson, Canada’s newest export to the States, The Last Crossing (Guy Vanderhaeghe’s monumental best-seller up north), arrives trailing rhapsodic reviews that laud the novel’s ”historical scope” and ”epic sweep.”

Epic sweep. When I was a teenager, descriptions like that made my heart soar, promising narratives grand and romantic enough to let me escape my regrettably unromantic life. It’s been years since I picked up a fat, lurid bodice ripper, and I embarked on ”The Last Crossing” — full of period costumes and mannered, flowery prose — buoyed by waves of nostalgia. But while this novel is juicy, all right, it’s also tough, gruesome, and surprisingly bleak.

In 1871, Charles and Addington Gaunt, rich young Englishmen, head to Fort Benton, Mont., in search of their brother Simon. A devout Christian who went west to ”uplift the Indians,” Simon has instead pulled an ”Into the Wild” disappearing act. Goodhearted Charles actually hopes to find Simon, while Addington, a domineering, syphilitic nutjob, is in it for the hunting. He thinks Simon is a ”little, pecksniffing, pious ass,” but he can’t wait to take on one of the region’s fabled grizzly bears, preferably when he’s naked and carrying just his archery set, ”the ancient arms of the English yeoman.”

The Gaunts hire Jerry Potts, a half-Indian, half-Scottish scout (and a real-life hero in the settlement of the Canadian frontier), to lead their search party. Here, Potts is suffering from his own moral crisis. Where, as a ”half-breed,” do his loyalties lie? And how should he respond to Addington’s insults and abuse?

As the Gaunts assemble the shooting sticks, shotguns, rifles, and cases of brandy they will require, a Fort Benton girl is ”trifled with” and strangled. Her sister, Lucy Stoveall, a fiery redhead out of central casting, thinks she knows who did it and where they went, and joins up with the Gaunt expedition to track down the killer. ”As all Americans are, she is a natural democrat, but a refreshing and charming one,” Charles observes. Soon, he and Lucy are undressing each other in the moonlight.

This love story is about as fresh as the dried moose nose they eat on their trip. (Ditto some of Vanderhaeghe’s windy, high-flown language.) But the journey itself turns out to be something new and scary, unfolding more like a gothic horror story than a classic horse opera. Crazy Addington charts a madcap course north through Saskatchewan and Alberta, zigzagging over a degraded Western landscape where illiterate, murderous whiskey traders advertise with empty bottles strung from trees. The Indians they encounter, far from menacing, are devastated by alcoholism and smallpox. The travelers pull into one ”ghost camp” that offers a grotesque Pompeii-like tableau of pox-ravaged corpses rotting where they fell. No, this isn’t the escapist literature of an adolescent’s dream, but something decidedly more bracing and grown-up.