Welcome to the Jungle: The Sharpest Sight and Indians in Vietnam

For the past week, Mixedblood Messages has been honoring the life and work of Louis Owens who was born July 18, 1948 and died July 25, 2002. (This post is a couple days late, but it only means we get to talk/think about Owens longer!) Owens is the author of the work from which this blog name is taken, and an accomplished novelist in the mixedblood mystery genre as well as an all around mixedblood literary hero. If I’m still around next year, I will try to get to all the books I missed (including Owens’s excellent scholarly works in Native Studies). Thanks for reading…now go out and get yourself a Louis Owens Novel!

Painting on the jacket cover, Silent Whispers by Bert D. Seabourn

Louis Owens is an author of tropes. You read just two of his books and you get a taste of his obsessions: violent murder, resurrection, darkness, men of Cherokee/Choctaw/Irish ancestry (like himself), mischievous elders usurping the story, and mysterious women with mystical sex powers.

Then there’s Vietnam: the war in the jungle full of walking dead and evil spirits. It hangs like a dark cloud around the lives and minds of Owens’s characters. His most focused meditation on the war is found, I think, in his last novel, Dark River, which is all about the destructive nature of American masculinity and attitudes toward land. But the centrality of Vietnam in Owens’s personal mythology didn’t strike me until I went back and read his second novel, The Sharpest Sight.

The novel centers on Attis McCurtian who comes back from the war, as many did, a scatter shot shadow of his former self. His father, Hoey, says, “”My boy never came back from that war. They killed him and gutted him over there.'” One night in a hallucinatory flashback to his time in the jungle, this zombie Attis puts a knife through the heart of his long-time sweetheart Jenna Demi. And that should have been the final note in the shattered life of another unhinged veteran.

Until one night, Attis escapes from the facility for the criminally insane and disappears into the night. His best friend Mundo Morales, who went with him to Vietnam but came back to become Deputy of their small Central California town, is summoned to the river to find Attis,dead and swirling with the logs. The rest of The Sharpest Sight details the quest to recover Attis body, while a bevy of dark forces (the FBI, a hungry soul-eater, and an insane tavern owner) work against efforts to make Attis and the world he disrupted whole again.

Through flashbacks, told by Mundo, Owens manages to address the racism faced by Indian soldiers. They were, of course, all given the nickname chief but more insidiously they were the first ones chosen for night guard. In the rhetoric surrounding Native American enrollment in the armed forces (the greatest percent of any group in the US), words about warrior ethic and tradition are often bandied around instead of the more ominous motivations such as complete lack of any other choice but to fight for the people who took everything from you. This desire for the mantle of warrior is what, in part, drives Attis into the war.

But once in Vietnam,  Attis’s quickly becomes disillusioned. He sees “the lonely ghosts of long-range recon men wandering the jungle” and becomes convinced he and the other soldiers are destined to kill each other over and over again. After describing the “black river full of snakes and dead things” reserved for murderers, Attis tells his best friend, “‘Warriors always used to go to the good place. But what I can’t figure out, Mundo, is the difference between a warrior and a murderer.'”

This is the question that is passed along with Attis’s fatigue jacket to his younger brother Cole who is given the task of reclaiming Attis’s bones. Cole too must enter a jungle where “there were always hidden things, looming in the darkness.” His pilgrimage, however, is not to a foreign land, but rather the homeland he never knew. It is in the Choctaw jungle of the deep South where Cole will seek to return his brother’s bones to his wandering shadow and his own sense of identity to himself. Cole comes to realize that in the old ways, being a warrior is based not just on the amount of enemy scalps you claim, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on counting coup. It is through the old ways that he can calm down a world in chaos.

The McCurtains are mixedblood Indians living in the Salinas Valley in Central California. They have been tossed about on the waters of American life, and like so many have ended up far from home and with little sense of their past. The Vietnam War hits their lives as the final blow, destroying the first born son and damaging everyone he touched. At one point, Hoey talks about the “‘ceremonies for warriors coming back home, ceremonies that could take all the evil out,” and wonders if this is what Attis required upon his return from the evil of senseless war. Cole’s journey is this ceremony. It is the journey of all Indians to find themselves not in someone else’s war, not in the dead places, but in the jungle of our pasts, mysterious and full of hidden things but thriving with life.


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