Looking at Louis Through The Covers

This week I am commemorating the life of Louis Owens, the mixedblood King of literature, through discussion of some of his key novels. For an overview of Owens’s life, go here, and for a review of his last novel Dark River, go here.

Instead of reviewing this book in the usual manner, I’d like to look at Nightland through its covers. First off, I would like to issue a demand that all of Owens’s works be re-issued not only to bring his name to a new generation of critical Indians, but also to remedy the series of ugly and deceptive book bodies that now serve as the world’s window into Owens’s writing.

First we have this acid-induced nightmare for a book that is about two half-Cherokee best friends who find themselves with a million dollars of blood money, money that literally fell out of the sky:

I know what you’re thinking (after you throw up in your mouth a little bit): who in Creator’s name would create something so ghastly. I’m not sure what’s worse, the color penciled monster or the Southwestern Comic Sans. No wonder Owens continues to stew in obscurity. This cover besides being terrifying gives no clue to the content or tone of the novel within. I suspect this otherworldy image, and it accompanying wacky font, were chosen to emphasis the Native American aspects of the book.

This is all part of what Owens’s calls the “invention of the Indian.”Just like white people have invented the category of “white,” they have also created the “Indian,” just another racialized set of qualities that fails to truly describe the people it circumscribes. Signifiers like those on this cover seek only to communicate the idea of an Indian novel, without lending any hint to what the book is actually about.

It is a common plague among Native American authors. They are always Indians before they are authors. What is important about their books is their authenticity as Native texts; only secondary is actually listening to what those texts have to say. It is only ironic that such a cover is used for an author who writes so consistently against the idea of a homogenous Indian identity.

I suspect there’s another reason for the freakish, rainbow-haired alien. In most of Owens’s books there are elements typically classified as “supernatural.” People coming back from the dead, shadows of souls lurking in the corners, men shifting into coyotes and back, etc. These aspects have garnered him the title of “magical realist” but this is not magic, it’s simply the Choctaw/Cherokee worlds emerging into English literature. Of course, instead of treating Indigenous culture and storytelling with the correct and respectful signifiers, the literary establishment calls them “magic” and puts a magic bird on it.

Okay, second cover. Don’t worry, this one isn’t nearly as bad:

Here we have the opposite approach. None of that weird Native American mystic stuff. Just straight-up Clive Cussler style action-thriller cover. I wonder how many macho guys, those who only read “Men’s literature” on the morning commute or in the gym, would be tempted to pick this book up, how many would read it, and if anyone of them might actually like it. Owens’s books certainly do not skimp on the plot. Nightland is filled with suspense, blood-shed, mystery, all the classic qualities of a thriller. I could imagine the first half of the cover copy only describing the drug trade, poor ranchers, and dark women that operate as the classic noir machinations. Of course, there are also long digressions on the nature of Indian identity, the destruction of the West through a history of settler colonialism, and all the aforementioned “Indian mystic” stuff. Considering, this cover might actually persuade some bonehead to actually listen to the latter, while enjoying the former, I heartily approve.

Finally, the cover I was lucky enough to stumble upon in a used book store. The best of all three:

You have your Indian accents, the dream catcher hoop thing, the mysterious landscape, but the emphasis is mostly on the author and title. This I think most succinctly captures, in broad strokes, the menacing feel of the novel. Though we continue through the plot, wondering what will happen to our half-Cherokee friends Will and Billy (who together make one whole Indian?), not to mention, the resurrected man who dropped with the money from the sky, there is always the weight of prophecy nudging us towards one unavoidable conclusion.

Though Nightland isn’t my favorite Owens’s novel, it still has dialogue as good as any other of his books (all of his characters eventually reveal themselves as philosophers). One of my favorite lines he ever wrote is in this book, spoken by the (somewhat) benevolent Pubelo drug lord Paco Ortega, “‘It’s the American dream, isn’t it, to commit every kind of filthy thing and then pretend it never happened?'”

As far as filthy things go, I may not believe in the American dream, but I’d be willing to pretend that first cover never happened as long as Penguin Classics gets started on their Louis Owens series.


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