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Category Archives: Book Review
These days the only time Vikings and Indians (spoken of in slurs) are mentioned in the same breath is during the Monday Night Football pre-game show. Yet these two groups and the mythologized contact between them was once a cornerstone of American identity. Annette Kolodny’s magnum opus, In Search of First Contact, is a fascinating and often times brilliant look at the tales and theories , sometimes resembling tall tales themselves, surrounding the Vikings and the Native people they found and called Skraelings (the first Anglo-slur against Natives meaning “wretches who screech”).
Where exactly these Vikings landed and who exactly they were calling dirty names is and remains a contentious issue. Everyone wants to imagine that theirs is the settlement once graced by great Scandinavian adventurers. New Englanders have been especially vehement in their claim to the Vikings, men they imagine as freedom fighting self-starters. But for many years, the supposed site of Viking exploration and brief colonization was L’Anse Aux Meadows, now a fishing village on the coast of Northeastern Newfoundland.
However, Kolodny, who in a rare show of rigorous scholarship actually worked in conjunction with Native peoples, conjectures the viking settlement was actually much further south in Nova Scotia or possibly Maine. In the end, the record is inconclusive and Kolodny chooses to focus on what the Viking colony “became for Euro-Americans in the nineteenth century, that is a geographical site that was transfigured into an imagined landscape for the projection of dreams.”
This makes much more sense as Kolodny is not an archeologist or even a historian. She is instead a literary critic with expansive curiosity and an understanding (so often lacking in discussions of literature) of the sociopolitical repercussion of the stories we tell and re-tell. This wide-angle view of literature is how Icelandic stories from the year 1000 ended up on her American literature syllabus. She argues that some of the earliest contact stories of North America are The Greenlander Saga and Erik’s Saga, known collectively as the Vinland sagas, Vinland being the name of the brief Viking settlement on North American shores.
Both sagas tell the story of Erik the Red and his descendents who were the first Norsemen to settle Greenland. Erik’s son Leif is the first of these new Greenlanders to set foot on lands even further West. After Leif’s initial and lucrative season in Vinland, his brother Thorvald also sets sail for the new land. It is Thorvald who first encounters the indigenous people, and proceeds to kill all nine (who Kolodny postulates to be Algonquian people of either the M’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy or Penobscot tribes) immediately without provocation. Bad idea, Thorvald. The Indians come back in greater numbers soon after and kill him.
While later expeditions would have some luck trading cloth for pelts with the tribes, the relationship eventually devolved into conflict. Sensing such battles would outweigh the timber and other resources the Norsemen had cultivated in Vinland, they went home to Greenland never to return. I have grossly reduced the substance of these sagas, which Kolodny interprets and explains in much greater detail, touching upon the special role of women and supernatural elements in the text which were fascinating. Having never before been even remotely interested in medieval Icelandic literature, I found Kolodny a persuasive guide not only to their cultural and historical interest but their artistry as well.
But as interesting as these feats of imagination were, much more pressing for the purposes of this review are the imaginative theories that followed from them. The Vinland sagas were to become the starting point for a whole, complex web of ideas about America’s past and future, and the fate of the Indian was inextricably linked to these ideas.
In the 1800s Americans became hungry for a sense of history, craving an antiquity they found by playing Indian and memorializing the Viking. Carl Christian Rafn, a Danish philolgist who never stepped foot in America, started the Viking craze with his 429-page tome on Norse landfalls in Massachusets, Antiquitates Americanae, published in 1837.
It was not long before the American people seized on this sense of an ancient Norse ancestor and took pride in being the descendents of such a strong, colonizing stock. But of course, American identity is and never has been stable. As the country developed from rebellious colony to expansionist empire, so too changed the role of the Indian and the Viking in American history. Soon it was not enough just to have the sense of history, they needed a sense of total ownership.
In Search of First Contact dedicates a considerable section to the racist notions many American scholar began injecting in their work: foremost among these that Europeans had settled this land long ago and were the rightful, Christian predecessors to the Americans. To corroborate these theories, the giant mounds of the South Eastern Indian tribes, carved and smelted artifacts of artistry and the rock inscriptions of Algonquian peoples in the North became ascribed to the Norse. It was obvious to Americans that they could not acknowledge any sense of history or culture to the people they needed to justify killing and displacing.
Two divergent but similarly harmful theories arose. If you were of a more charitable ilk, the Indians were an ignorant people who had existed on the continent without culture or religion and they were no match to the descendents of the Norse who had returned to fufill the past mission of a prosperous Christian nation. If you were of the blood-thirsty (often slave-holding) class, Indians were very much the Skraelings who had driven off a superior European race who had planted the seeds of a grand civilization on untamed land.
It is no coincidence that concurrent with the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma, southern writer William Simm was writing about “an earlier even more horrific aggression” namely the expulsion of the noble Norsemen by the savage Redmen. With the pretense of defense and vindication, the now victimized white southerners were in the moral right.
In Search of First Contact illustrates an important lesson: even fields as supposedly objective as history are never not political. In this case, the somewhat innocent-seeming desire for a rich national past became a weapon with which to kill and dislocate Native bodies deemed either unfit or unjust residents of a land rightfully belonging to Europeans.
Stay tuned, in the next post, I will discuss Native narratives of first contact. Thanks for reading!
Book I Talked About:
In Search of First Contact, by Annette Kolodny. Duke University Press, 2012.
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.
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.
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.
This is a long-form book review I have been working on for some time. I find anthologies especially hard to cover and this one in particular was a challenge because the topic, Indigenous Science-Fiction, is one I want to spend the rest of my life talking about. A shorter, more refined version of this piece is currently looking for a home in an online magazine. Until that day (if it comes), I have decided to indulge (that’s what personal blogs are for, right?) and present you with my author’s cut, which addresses more of the collection than possible in my edited version. Enjoy!
It’s 2100 and the Ghost Dancers have returned. The born-again Sioux are dancing to free their people’s souls from the extraterrestrial Barrier, a deadly “trans-organism” that has divided the world into refugee camps. The camps fill every day with people struck by the fire virus, a ghastly disease only the Sioux are immune to and only the people of West Africa have the cure for.
This is the premise of Andrea Harriston’s novel Mindscape, a world where western science has failed in the face of the unknowable and the world relies on Indigenous knowledge to survive.
It is just one of almost twenty alternate universes found in Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. For the geeky Indian tired of reading and watching science fiction about white heroes conquering red planets, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is what the recent release of The New Yorker Science Fiction Issue was for other nerdy types—the validation of something that has for too long been ignored. In this case, not just the perennially-overlooked Indigenous voices but the weird Indigenous voices of speculative and science fiction.
Edited by the ever-insightful Grace L. Dillon, Walking the Clouds is the first anthology to bring together writers from around the world representing not only their own tribal literature but also the burgeoning movement of Indigenous Futurism. This inherently radical literature dares to project the Vanishing Indian, victim of genocide or modern despondency, far into the future and onto a genre that re-envisions the world through uniquely Indigenous perspectives.
Walking the Clouds is not just an introduction to what Indigenous Futurism is, but a continuous attempt to create the subject of its study. To that end, the stories and excerpts are rather short with Dillon’s introduction and analysis defining and guiding us through the conceptual framework of each brief piece. The book is more an encyclopedia of ideas than a true collection of stories, providing a useful road map thorough previously scattered works while pointing out valuable sources to revisit.
The driving tension of this exploration is between what Indigenous Futurism shares with SF and what it subverts. For Stephen Graham Jones, a self-proclaimed follower of “Blackfeet physics,” the time-bending, multidimensional quality of SF is simply an extension of tribal tradition. Neither Dillon nor I would go so far as to say all Indigenous literature is inherently SF, but what this anthology does reveal is that Indigenous SF is not new: it is simply a new way to group aspects that have shot through certain Indigenous literature and perceptions for a very long time.
Though, Dillon points to these shared aspects, she is also quick to highlight the stark differences between a world centered on Western science and one on Indigenous knowledge. By choosing to lay claim to Science Fiction, the collection commits an ultimate act of appropriation by transforming a genre that has defined Western-American attitudes towards race, colonialism, and technology into a vehicle for Indigenous resistance. Aliens are no longer the racialized other of exotic worlds and the colonization of distant, presumed-empty lands no longer the central drama. Most importantly, Western technology is no longer revered as God but rather critiqued as a flawed method of interacting with nature.
We witness this war of worlds in Simon Ortiz’s contribution to the anthology, Men on the Moon, the story of an old Acoma man, Faustin, who turns on the television for the first time and watches the Apollo 11 rocket launch through snowy static. As he watches astronauts collect samples, Faustin laughs that the “American scientists went to search for knowledge on the moon and they brought back rocks.” When he asks his grandson what they want to learn from rocks, he is told the scientists want to know how the universe began. Faustin responds incredulously, “Hasn’t anyone told them?”
In Faustin’s eyes, the wonder of science and its ability to make anything possible—a theme in many SF stories—becomes skepticism and even ridicule of science’s attempt to “discover” what for many has already been found, much like the “New World” itself. Ortiz does not rely on how a Western notion of science can enhance his fiction, but instead reveals the fiction behind science’s claims to epistemological mastery. Ortiz’s story, Men on the Moon, is not in an anthology of SF because of its references to space and strange machines, it is there because of the process of estrangement whereby it challenges the precepts with which we classify “science” and “fiction”.
The disruptive estrangement of Ortiz’s work is the unifying theme of Walking in the Clouds. So too is the sense of irony, sharpened to a point in Stephen Graham Jones’ description of a robotic Lone Ranger subservient to Tonto and Sherman Alexie’s telling of a future world where Indians rid the world of all white presence. But nowhere is the topsy-turvy nature of the Indigenous Futurist world clearer than in the apocalyptic frontier. Dillon argues that the SF apocalypse has long been an excuse for Western writers to re-open the frontier as a stage for the ongoing battle between savagery and civilization. But that imaginative space is quite different when experienced by people who, as Mark Bould says, “have already survived the apocalypse.”
From the perspective of Indigenous survivors the frontier, whether the Wild West, Mars or the ruins of a nuclear disaster, becomes less of what Vine Deloria Jr. describes as “a testing ground for abstract morality” and more a “comprehensive matrix of life forms.” In short, Flash Gordon will not survive the Indigenous space age without seriously re-situating his relationship with the universe. In Walking the Clouds, the brave white adventurer is sent groveling to the Indians who always continue to survive while the earth or some version of it responds to environmental crisis.
In William Sanders’ haunting contribution to the anthology the crisis is global warming. As Non-Indians continue to encroach on Cherokee land, fleeing the rising ocean tides that have swallowed coastal America, a tribal police officer assigned to run off squatters becomes obsessed with the song of a starving white woman: “Oh, when this world is all on fire/ Where you gonna go?” It is an apt elegy for a society who acts as if sustainability is something they just invented, rather than a system of living they have largely destroyed.
In Gerlad Vizenor’s 1978 Darkness in St. Louis: Bearheart, one of the early classics of Indigenous science fiction, America is in the midst of a similar energy crisis, the depletion of natural gas. Spurred westward in search of more fuel, the government eventually makes its way to Indian land. In this passage, Proude, an Annishnabe man, scares away federal agents who have come to make a deal for the timber on his land:
The federal man was so unnerved by the sounds of bears and harsh crows that he picked up his machine and started running, not pedaling, in the wrong direction out of the woods. The federal woman stopped him and encouraged him to return to the cabin. She reminded him of their responsibilities as elite employees of the federal government.
The mocking condescension of the last line brings a knowing smile to the Indigenous reader. Elite, ha! In this world you are revealed as the fools you are. But this is more than a spoof on white people (a genre that has existed in tribal literature for some time). The mockery here decorates a profound criticism of Western supremacy, the thinking so central to American identity that the conquest of Indigenous peoples is justified by the tautological superiority of civilization over savagery.
The speculative fiction of Indigenous writers peels back the benevolent mask of the colonizer, with his promise of progress, rationality, and hierarchy, to reveal the reptilian face of a hungry monster. Vizenor especially points to this darker side, this “fundamental savagism, which was always a part of Western civilization.” In Vizenor’s view a world dependent on ravaging natural resources is not truly advanced. It is simply brutal, and ultimately self-destructive.
In many cases, those most suited to peeling back the skin of civilization to reveal the cold-blooded soul within are the mixed-blood or cross-blood characters. Not just part Indian, these characters are part animal, part human, part machine, part mutant and often reflective of two-spirit gender identities. In Metis author Misha’s Red Spider, White Web, the protagonist Kumo is a genetically spliced Wolverine-Woman, who wears “layer upon layer of shape-shifter masks.” Trickster characters such as Kumo are uniquely positioned to move between different worlds; indeed their alienation often does not allow them to stay still. In Misha’s words to be a mixed-blood is to be “a violet integration of two worlds, but belonging to neither.”
It may sound like a vulnerable position—it certainly comes with its confusions and insecurities—but it is also a position with powerful potentials. The ability of mixed-blood subjects to poke wormholes in the boundaries between identities, worlds, and classifications is parallel to the ability Dillon consistently points out as the most laudable aspect of SF. There is no coincidence I think. Just as many tribes have ideas about non-liner reality and stories of multi-world voyaging, many contemporary mixed-blood readers and writers feel the anxieties of postmodern SF characters of the sort that litter Philip K. Dick’s novels.
But whereas Philip K. Dick turns to psychedelic Christianity, the postmodern Indian has a wealth of tribal knowledge and support to lean back on. The enduring message from Walking the Clouds is not just one of Indian survival but the ability for the Indian to make their home anywhere….even in a genre that as Dillon says arose in a context “profoundly intertwined with colonial ideology.”
This is exactly the case in Star Waka, an epic poem by Robert Sullivan, which details the journey of the Maori as they search for a new home in a different solar system. Though they soar into uncharted space far from the islands of their ancestors, their expedition is based on the tenants of Kaupapa Maori, or the “effort to combat the dehumanizing effects of colonization by maintaining the Maori language, culture, teachings, and philosophy.” Sullivan conveys this flexible identity by weaving traditional Maori terms with the technology of inter-galactic travel: A space waka/ rocketing to another orb/singing waiata to the spheres.
These few lines capture all the excitement of my initial thoughts upon encountering this anthology: Yes, Indians in space! To be an Indian in space, singing traditional songs to new planets, is to blow rocket smoke in legacies of dispossession and death. An Indian in space is a proud symbol of how far our Indigenous traditions can take us if we only dare to take them with us. Walking the Clouds take us there, to space, to the future and illuminates a new universe of Indigenous imagination that is both exhilarating and beautiful.
When you leave whatever godforsaken place for the big city, your departure inspires rituals of hand-wringing and flurries of nervous questioning from the extended family. They watch concerned as you disappear into the vortex of banal evil where good people have no chance against the bad. But in these imaginings of the city as the heart of human darkness, we overlook the more deliberate, simmering violence of small town life.
Those little places are full of brutality, the kind that can’t be washed away, only covered like bloodstained hardwood under shag carpet. What scares small town folks most about the city is the flippancy of violence, how the guy laying his fists into you isn’t someone you’ve lived less than five miles from all your life and there’s a black hole where a family tree’s worth of history should be to connect his punches to.
It is this kind of suffocating small town violence that pervades the pages of Growing Up Dead in Texas, the new “novel” by Stephen Graham Jones. It begins with Jone’s return to Greenwood, the West Texas town he grew up in, to find out what really happened one morning in 1985 when someone set the tiny town’s cotton ablaze. But that act of arson is just the first firecracker in a long line of minor explosions. As blame shifts wildly from one person to the next, bystanders are left bloodied to a pulp, their faces or fates never quite the same. Each year the list of dead (and mangled) grows and it all has the feel of a tragic script: it’s not over until everybody has been wounded, from cheerleader to King.
Jones was only twelve when this all happened, too young to fit the pieces together but sensitive enough to feel dark forces at work. He takes us from one secret to the next, each unturned stone smeared with blood. Earlier I called this journey into the past a “novel” because that’s what the cover claims. But Jones comes right out in the preface and states “…this wasn’t going to be a novel.” Then one paragraph later, he’s telling us he doesn’t think non-fiction is possible. What are we to believe? Novel, memoir, fiction, non-fiction? There will be no answer.
Unrelenting in his insecurity, Jones struggles defiantly with the expectations of his form and documents his exasperation at every step. In each statement there hangs a question as he takes aim at his own authority. Does he really have to change people’s names? Can he tell little lies for the sake of story? Does he have to tell us when he lies? Towards the end of the book, Jones seems to be begging, Must I go on like this?
While I was sucked into the intricacies of the mystery, constructing in my mind one of those tack boards you see in the background of cop procedural shows, the most rewarding parts of the book are when Jones unlocks his own memories. His account is as full of his own secrets as the secrets of the townspeople. Many of those secrets include his own acts of violence, starting with all the pets he’s had to kill. The first was a kitten, born prematurely with no chance in the world. Jones, in muleskin boots still to big for him, raises a cinder block above his head and lets it fall on the doomed life before going in for breakfast without saying a word. “It was how I knew I was grown up: I had things inside me that weren’t for anybody else.”
These searching moments, when Jones looks for the spark for the being he has become, provide an intimate look at what drives a person to narrate life. He does so not only for himself but for the town itself and all the people in it, looking for where everything began.
We think of such narration as an act of creation, but Jones also reveals the destruction at the center of stories. He takes us into imagined scenes, crafting conversations he could have never heard drawing out all the sad detail and crushing precision of rural poetry where so much of the meter depends on silence. And then almost cruelly he tells us, “Lies. All of it.” He never allows us to fall completely into his deceit. He has to tell us, “This is piecemeal, secondhand, polluted, cleaned-up then tore down, worse, but still, it’s the only way it could have gone, too.” Though he points to the seams of his narrative to expose its artifice, he is at the same time praising his craft for making the past real again or at least as real as it will ever get.
Despite the confusion of genres and unhinged narration, the book has already heralded as the “break-out novel” for a writer who up to this point has been known by some as a genre writer who tells zany stories about rabbit zombies and by others as the post-modern Blackfeet writer who tells stories that sound like acid trips. While his sentences are more straightforward in this book, beginning and ending in a trajectory that is mostly followable, the story is no less complex than his other other-dimensional novels. You can always count on Jones to bring the weird. Even as he slips into the occasional cliche (a first in my experiences with him and endemic it seems to writing about rural America), he leaves the typical phrase gutted and real again by the next paragraph.
I haven’t gone much into the complexities of the plot here because that might require a mapping of major players and a detailed timeline (which Jones himself does not provide). And as fascinating as it is to watch unfold, much like the smoke rising from a cotton fire, the book is more fascinating for what it says about the story being told.
Authors, critics, and readers too are always trying to prove that stories matter to the world, that they give our society a soul and define our humanity. For Stephen Graham Jones, the story is important not just for humanity, here defined as those left behind in Greenwood, but most importantly for the one who got away, the writer himself. His story is there to lead him back to the person he tried to destroy, not in order to escape but to exorcise the desire to escape. In the beginning he tells us he has finally left West Texas behind with this book. On the last page, he says he is still watching the smoke rise on a December morning in 1985. Unlike the usual saying about fiction, these are not beautiful lies. But they are honest ones.
Book I Talked About:
Growing Up Dead in Texas, by Stephen Graham Jones. (June 12, 2012, MP Publishing Limited)