For the next week, I will be exploring different novels by Louis Owens who was born on July 18th and died on July 25th.
The book that started it all. Actually, the book that marks the end of Louis Owens’ career. But it is the first book of his I read, the one that let me know I had found my literary soul mate. Dark River, Owens’ fifth and final novel, is a product and exploration of the paradoxes of the American West: at once mystery and meditation on the wandering soul of the mixedblood Indian (and the mixedblood settler for that matter).
The story takes place in my home state of Arizona, and it captures so well the twisted soul of that bizarre and variable place, one that has contributed no doubt to the strange shape of my own being. When people talk about Arizona these days, they imagine a state full of angry white men who loves guns, borders, and the New World Order. That is indeed a very vocal part of the state’s make-up and their aggressive brand of nationalism represent a very destructive force at the center of Dark River.
These are men with enough money to spend on a week-long pilgrimage to the canyon lands of the Apache reservation to attend a sort of Rambo 101, crash course in survivalism. Armed to the teeth with military-scale weaponry, the disturbed suburbanites practice a host of strategies and tactics for surviving in the end times.
As much as the book centers around critiquing the absurdity of their philosophy, it also brings forth the others of Arizona, the New Age weirdos from Sedona, the lonely mixed bloods, the Vietnam veterans, the authenticity-obsessed anthropologists, the Apache elder in converse sneakers, the vision quest entrepreneur, the Spaghetti Western extra, and the corrupt tribal chief.
These characters are types for sure but Owens is too good an author, too honest of an author, to keep them chained to the expectations of their mold. At every turn they twist our assumptions of what “that kind of person” is like and leave us questioning our notions of purity and what constitutes identity in the first place.
According to Shorty Luke, the aforementioned “star” of Spaghetti Westerns who speaks Rez-accented Italian, your identity is just another survival tool. As he says after one of his impromptu mentoring sessions with the youngins, “‘I’m just trying to make sure the kids know their roles, develop their sense of irony, so they’ll know how to function, how to adapt like Russell Means*.’” For Shorty, the first in a line of tricksters populating these pages, that adaptation comes through stories and he proudly wears the title of “Shorty the Story Thief.”
But our hero is not so declarative on issues of identity. He is of the mixedblood and Vietnam vet categories, Jacob Nashoba a Choctaw man working as a Forest ranger on an (imagined) Apache Reservation. Like Byron before him, Owen shapes his melancholy, love-lorn heroes on himself and the loneliness of the mixedblood subject reaches its height in this, his last story.
As one might suspect, much of that loneliness comes from the restlessness of being between worlds. Nashoba tells himself he isn’t “really an Indian…or really anything else. His mother had died during his first tour of duty, and so he was tied to nothing in the whole world except a childhood vision of an old man he never knew.” Envisioning himself as a man with no roots, Jacob connects himself to the white men who came West and had since made a mess of the land. He sees himself as a true American, stumbling around, destroying everything in his path and then simply moving along…because he never belonged there anyway.
The only people who truly feel settled in the text are the Apaches. That’s because they are; they live on land that is theirs and always has been. They have a home, a people and so they are never lost. Everyone else in the book is stuck searching, whether through vision quests, survivalist summer camps, authentically re-created tipis, etc, for the place that will make them whole.
Avram Goldberg is the most ridiculous, but in classic Owen’s style also the most poignant, of these pilgrims. Avram is a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who stumbled onto the Black Mountain Apache Reservation to do research and never left. Now he is more Native than the Natives. He’s so much more Indian, the Chief drags him out of his wickiup to speak to the magazine reporters and Diane Sawyer types who come through looking to talk to real, live Indians.
He is an easy character to laugh at…at first. Then a little past half-way through the book, Owens takes us into Goldberg’s memory. We learn about the long road he’d walked to get out West, how “he’s walked nearly every step of it by himself, learning something essential before each foot touched the earth, reading, watching, listening, questioning, deciding, becoming.” Though perhaps a little foolish, Goldberg is only trying to become, like all of us.
Through this wide array of characters, Dark River itself becomes a study of the American myth of the self-made man. Sometimes sociopathic, sometimes a saint, the wayfaring stranger defines the Western personality. In his ambiguous, piercing vision, Owens casts this temperament like the “wild song of coyotes, the mixed-up mess of cry and lullaby and angry shriek all in a single garbled note.”
*One of the original leaders of the American Indian Movement who went on to star in Hollywood films, including being the voice of Pocahontas’s father in the Disney film.