Monday, November 11, 2002


The following review appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Books section on Sunday, November 10, 2002, in a slightly edited version. That version is available on the Chronicle website ( at:
This is the full version of that review.

by William Severini Kowinski

The Dirt Is Red Here
Art and Poetry From Native California
edited by Margaret Dubin

The revival of California Indian cultures from close to the vanishing point to today's energetic resurgence is a profound and largely untold story, but now all of us can enjoy this anthology of art and poetry as a vibrant and revelatory expression of its success.

Quite simply, this is a beautiful book. Color reproductions are appropriately brilliant (Judith Lowry's "The Rescue," Henry Fonseca's "Creation 2001" for example) or delicate (Kathleen Smith's "My People's Home"), and two facing black and white photographs ("Lucy Lowry" and "Tuolumne MeWuk Rancheria Roundhouse") by Dugan Aguilar are alone worth the price of admission.

Editor Margaret Dubin (managing editor of the magazine, "News from Native California", which printed many of these writers and artists) has arranged texts and illustrations both for visual appeal and as delightful and sometimes subtle comments on one another. Printed on sturdy, glossy paper, this softcover book leaves more expensive coffee table tomes in the dust. This is a book to keep and revisit.

There's a dazzling variety of art, from work linked closely to ceremonial origins (the basketry of Linda Augilar and Linda Yamane, Bradley Marshall's regalia) to the abstract canvases of Fritz Scholder and Parris Butler, the sculpture and installation art of George Blake and James Luna, and the mixed media of Jean Lamarr, Brian Tripp and Frank Tuttle. The poetry (and two short prose pieces by Greg Sarris and Darryl Wilson) also demonstrates an impressive range of styles, from the heartfelt narratives of Sylvia Ross to the ritual rhythms of Frank LaPena and Stephen Meadows, and Richard Stewart's haiku inflections. There's a multiplicity of moods even within the work of a single artist or writer, evoking laughter, pain, meditation, mystery, sensuousness and wonder, and together comprising an eye-opening journey of rare quality and resonance.

I experienced one unifying thread in how this work illustrates and embodies the often-used but still indicative expression, "walking in two worlds." Grounded in cultures that grew here for thousands of years, these artists are also participants---often as far-flung students and teachers---in a demanding world dominated by very different premises and attitudes.

The clash is the occasion for the witty commentaries of James Luna's "High-Tech Peace Pipe" and L. Frank Manriquez painting of a pajama-clad Coyote in van Gogh's bedroom. But the complexities of this daily doubleness are also embedded in Janice Gould's meditations on family and being Lesbian, and in Wendy Rose's description of a "Literary Luncheon: Iowa City" where "I maintain/without willing it/an Indian invisibility."

It's there in Shaunna Oteka McCovey's satire on a huckster shaman who gives out a "Friends Drum Free" coupon, and her contrapuntal dialogue on creation stories-and in nearly every other poem and image in this collection. Even an evocation of nature suggests an aspect, like Deborah Miranda's "The Language of the Prophets" which ends: "Green pines take/what fog lets go."

"Indians evolve like everyone else," Deborah Miranda writes in another poem here. "Times change. We grow into/what comes next." As scholar and novelist Michael Dorris noted elsewhere, there emerged in the 1960s and 1970s a sizeable "new and maturing generation" of American Indian writers whose "primary language of expression is English, but an English accommodated to the special needs of their individual tribal histories and realities." Their work, Dorris wrote, both expands "the scope of English language composition and criticism" in form, and in content dispelled stereotypes by exhibiting qualities rarely found in Indians depicted by non-Indians: "humor, irony, intelligence, and stamina."

In 1994, Greg Sarris edited "The Sounds of Rattles and Clappers" (University of Arizona Press), the first major collection of poems and short fiction by writers with ancestry in indigenous California tribes. The distinction of ancestry, also followed in this anthology, is important, for California is host to more Native Americans than any other state, but most come from elsewhere. The immensely various California landscape fostered a hundred or more small tribes that developed complex cultures based on intimate relationship to their particular place, and its river or mountain, desert or forest. In this recurrently meaningful sense, their cultures are California.

This new book includes a succinct introduction providing historical context, and biographical notes on the artists that tell more of the story. Although they may live in distant cities for a time, many of these artists return to participate in traditional ceremony as singers, dancers, weavers and regalia-makers, activities which integrate artistic expression with utilitarian and religious purposes.

I would describe this work as contemporary art and poetry with extra dimensions: enlivening and enlightening differences from the mainstream drawn from not only complex personal experiences but from traditional cultures that evolved in close affiliation with the land and waters, flora and fauna of the places where we live. Those differences-subtle or bold, candid and ironic, found in form and content--- combine with familiar elements of shared culture to offer us the opportunity of insight into both another point of view and our common humanity. This book is itself a kind of ceremony and celebration. It belongs in the homes and hearts of every Californian.

quotes from Michael Dorris: PAPER TRAIL by Michael Dorris, HarperPerennial 1995, pp 250,-1.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

The Lit'ry Life: October 2002

Note to the Death of the Author semiotic/deconstructionists: Gee, I guess you were right after all.

Of the 15 best-selling nonfiction books on the New York Times hardcover list for September 29, five have no authors.

There are two books credited to the editors of Life magazine, one is "by the New York Times," one "by CBS News," and one by "photographers of the New York City Police Department.

Of the remaining ten titles, three are by journalist employees of newspapers, and one by a TV commentator.

Well, at least these behemoth corporations aren't being coy about controlling book publishing. I always thought that they should take their rightful share of the credit.

My reading since last time: I finished Mark Epstein's "Thoughts Without a Thinker" and went on to his "Going On Being," which in some ways is a more involving book. He structures it partially around several people, his particular teachers who each provided a different point of view, a different piece of the puzzle, which he assembles in his both his practices-- Zen meditation and psychoanalytic practice with patients.

Redemption Motifs by Marie-Louise von Franz is one of her many short books constructed from a series of lectures to Jungian analysts. I always enjoy reading these, and I always seem to be learning something, although afterwards I'd be hard pressed to tell you what.

A quote in a review of a book by Margaret Atwood sent me back to Northrup Frye, who I haven't read in many years. He is a penetrating observer and thinker, centered on literary criticism, but since literature leads to so many other places--contemporaneous culture, traditions, personalities, history, mythic mysteries---he is awfully acute and interesting on many matters. So far I've read one collection of texts delivered as talks or speeches, called "The Eternal Act of Creation." I have "Spiritus Mundi" (a selection of essays) and his classic "Anatomy of Criticism" newly on the shelf.

I read one novel last month--Tom Robbins' "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas." It was fun. Reminds me what the basic art of the novel is: delay. You start all these plot elements in motion, and delay and delay the payoff, until the reader understands that it's the journey that's entertaining. Which is good, because the payoff isn't that great in this case. Still, he's added a sci-fi kind of sensibility to his countercultural romps, and his particular take on the Nature of Things nicely links elements of the Doris Lessing sci-fi novels to Kurt Vonnegut's "Galapagos."

I am impressed by Theodore Rozak's "America The Wise" aka (in paperback) "The Longevity Revolution," which I've finally gotten around to reading. This is an important book, not be overlooked. I felt strongly enough about that to write the author, and to review it gratis for My review follows, BUT FIRST...

If you define the literary life to include stories in all their forms, then a few comments on what I've been watching on TV seem appropriate. At our house we've cycled through the cop dramas so prominent this year, and found the experience to be ultimately empty. Several of the series we were faithfully watching this summer---"Monk," "Deadline" and "Breaking News"---are either off the air or awaiting new episodes. That left us with "The West Wing" as the only ongoing series, though we often let ourselves watch "Law and Order" afterwards--I watch it partly to catch glimpses of New York actors I used to know, including one who was in one play I wrote, and carried around another for his audition piece.

The only new series I'm faithfully watching is "American Dreams." It's another one of those miracles---a solidly well done drama, skillful and innovative, that not only blows away just about everything else on TV but advances the drama series form in new ways. That it's about the 1960s is even more amazing. The 60s have never been portrayed well on TV and almost never in the movies. But this series is smart, it's largely accurate, and it has heart. All the actors are strong, the writing is very good, the editing and storytelling is remarkably subtle.

I grew up a few hundred miles from where this series is set (it's in Philadelphia; I was outside Pittsburgh) at about the same time. I'm not exactly the age of any of the characters, but very close. I also grew up in a Catholic household and attended Catholic schools, as the kids in this series do. Although there are plenty of anachronisms in the expressions and gestures characters use (which is part of the fun of watching it--"We didn't say that!" "Nobody pointed at each other like that then!"), most of the context is completely convincing.

Because this is series television drama, all the main characters are basically sympathetic. They all have flaws and all have redeeming characteristics. We see them change, sometimes within the 40 minutes or so of an episode. In that sense, it's unrealistic. Family dynamics and people don't really change that quickly or that much. But if you put a realistic portrait of, for instance, my father, or the fathers of my friends, you wouldn't necessarily have a sympathetic character week after week. In a dramatic play or a film, nuances within a set character can be revealed in interesting moments, or a character can be tested by a single large event. But when you're creating a character for people to follow week after week, that character has to be sympathetic, or else an out and out stereotypical villain.

In "American Dreams," this does something that TV drama series can do in a unique way: it can heal. Those of us who remember growing up in the 1960s may recall the generational battles and bad feelings, the unfulfilled yearnings and confusion of adolescence and our particular circumstances. In "American Dreams" we can relive moments in a better way. There is in fact a psychological technique of dealing with actual dreams that counsels you to recall your bad dreams, then "daydream" them again but with the plot and outcome you want to happen. This is healing. And so is watching the lovely young woman on this show dancing with such joy, in scenes you dearly wished could happen but never did. In the show, for instance, a group of teens that includes a famous pop group circle their cars, train their headlights on a center area, get out This never happened, or could happen, in my teenage life. We were too backward, awkward, self-conscious and unimaginative. But it sure looked like fun.

The situation is similar within the family. This isn't "Father Knows Best," but this father isn't your dumb sitcom dad, either. He is complex, stubborn, yet responsive. The children, perhaps because several are relatively close in age, treat each other and respond to each other as people. In short, this series is a combination of how things were and how we wish they were. Which is a perfect combination for a TV series.

"American Dreams" has already dealt with the response to President Kennedy's assassination with great sensitivity and accuracy. It is beginning to deal with race, and is laying the foundations for dealing with Vietnam, feminism and the sexual revolution. Music is central, as it was then. One of the main characters is a regular on American Bandstand, and the television studio scenes are dead-on, full of terrific subtext and bits, probably because Dick Clark---the originator of American Bandstand---is one of this series' exec producers. This is the most promising drama series to hit TV since "The West Wing."

Like aspects of "American Dreams," this season's "The West Wing" serves as much- needed fantasy fulfillment. In the first couple of episodes, President Bartlett made speeches so far above the rhetoric and content of speeches by current politicians, it was enough to make you cry. Apparently this season's shows are being criticized for getting too close to reality in portraying the Republican presidential candidate as a folksy, brainless opportunist from Texas---sorry, I mean Florida (!), but I make no apologizes for finding this therapeutic. We need an intelligent President unafraid to speak honestly, even if it's only on Wednesday nights.

Now, as promised, the review of AMERICA THE WISE/ THE LONGEVITY REVOLUTION by Theodore Roszak.

First a caveat: This book is sometimes offered along with Roszak's "America The Wise." They are however the same book--"America The Wise" is the hardback. I haven't compared them, but if not precisely the same, they are virtually the same, according to their author.

Frankly the worst thing about this book is the title--both titles. The book itself however is a very important one. For anybody who would like some hope for the future, and especially for baby boomers, this book is essential.

It's not about longevity, really. It's about the next twenty years or so, when the boomers--Roszak calls them the New People--reach traditional retirement age. It's likely that they will be healthier and more active and involved than previous generations. And there will be a lot of them (it's time to fess up, I guess--a lot of US.)

Roszak contends--with good reason--that the panic about boomers destroying Social Security and Medicare is largely manufactured for political purposes. Social Security is solvent now and will be for the next generation, and with minor adjustments, can be made so for the indefinite future. Medicare is a problem mostly because the whole health care system is a mess. Besides, the demographics suggest the increase in dependent older people will likely be offset in a decrease in dependent children.

But where this book shines is in outlining societal attitudes that could change due to an aging population. Advertisers don't like older consumers because they aren't so impressionable--they can't be lured so easily by absurd ads. So patterns of consumption could change, for the better. Other elder values plus the necessity for taking care of the very old and ill will challenge us to become more compassionate as a society, and more interested in living than moneymaking. For after all, as Roszak says, this aging of the population is going to happen--not just in the U.S. but worldwide-- and we're going to have to deal with it. It's either take care of each other, or kill the old folks. But don't let them know, not as long as they can still vote!

By and large this book is very cogent. It may be provocative to some, but it states its case with admirable clarity, so readers can easily confront what Roszak has to say. Baby boomers like to think of themselves--ourselves--as forever young. So perhaps we've ignored being slandered as selfish whiners who will bankrupt young folks (as Roszak points out, a lot of young folks are being kept afloat by parents.) But we don't have to die before we get old. The best may be yet to come.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

A version of this essay originally appeared as a column in Adbusters. The niece I refer to is now in college, and her sister will follow next year.


In the cybertopia of the future, or so advocates enthuse, the visual image will overcome the word, the speedy networks of the computer-phone/cable-TV net ( complete with VR on your DVD) will make the slow plod of reading books obsolete, and literature will be replaced by interactive multimedia hypertext.

Maybe so, and if so, too bad. It looks like cyberia to me.

So far what pictures seem to do best is sell, so we're inundated with fast blasts of images that associate great emotional states with products (including politicians and ideologies) and reduce complex ideas to suggestive icons. Meanwhile, literacy seems to be declining.

Anyway, words are visual media--as well as aural, physical, mental and spiritual--all interacting. Words are themselves multimedia. They embody mythology and history: there are profound lessons in the history of a word. A graceful sentence is a melody, a dance. Sentences become stories, and scientists and scholars in many fields are rediscovering story as the essential human form of explanation and communication.

So it shouldn't be surprising that in Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature, Culture and Eros (Sierra Club Books), an excellent collection of 29 interviews conducted by Derrick Jensen with the likes of Thomas Berry, ecologist Paul Shepard, novelist Linda Hogan, historian Frederick Turner and Public Media Center chief Jerry Mander, many speak of the primacy of language and story, as vital to every aspect of our life on earth as water or animals.

In our civilization it is most often true--and will likely be true long after the last deconstructionist decomposes--that
literature depends on the integrity of an author who stubbornly and skillfully communicates a perspective on pieces of time, a vision of human motivation and behavior in an historical, social, sensual, cultural context. It is unlikely that a computer bulletin board could write something as unsparing and lastingly illuminating as The Death of Ivan Ilych. Hypertexts and VR dramas are more likely to ape bad nineteenth century productions of Hamlet, where the Prince jumps up at the end, marries a resurrected Ophelia and lives happily ever after. Or else grabs his phaser and sets off to kill all the warlocks and werewolves in Europe. Yet literature is profoundly interactive--the words on the page become a book in the mind.

In both societal and personal realms, it is clear to me that without literature's particular pleasures, powers and forms of knowledge, we are doomed to stupidity. People who have read Dickens and Sinclair Lewis may be shocked by today's political scene, but they aren't surprised. Literature is learning in depth, and what we learn about most profoundly is each other and ourselves.

In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in An Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Sven Birkerts writes about the literature that escorted him through the self-formation of adolescence (J.D. Salinger,etc.) He fears teenagers today or tomorrow won't have such experiences. I hope he's wrong. Such books were also important to me, and I was early in the first generation to grow up with television as well as movies and pop music. One of my nieces is about to enter her adolescence--she's handy with computer and Nintendo, but she reads books, too.

Maybe she's in a minority now--but then, reading has always been a minority occupation. Some feel that makes it elitist. But as Jonathan Franzen writes, "The paradox of literature's elitism is that it's purely self-selecting. Anyone who can read is free to be part of it."

Hackers and cyber-cowboys may have all the swagger right now, but the real rebels are readers. They rebel against the shrug and grin of commercial conformity and fashionable cynicism by exploring themselves and the world with the help of literature. By slowing and deepening their time in reading, they rebel even against the inhuman speed of this society, which may be empowered by technology but is enforced by greed and panic.

Readers know that to inhabit a present which includes the textures of the past and the cycles of the future is to be more deeply alive than are the captives of buying and braying. "Some say the novel is dead," said a great novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "But it is not the novel. It is they who are dead."

Friday, September 20, 2002

MIT Press, 2002.

Why do people destroy the environment that sustains them is a psychological question as well as a political one. This book probes the ways our feelings and past experiences can help or hinder our relationship with the natural world. Nicholsen does this through stories and meditations on the work of authors in many areas who have much to say on this subject.

She teaches environmental philosophy, and this book lays groundwork for a better and deeper understanding of human thought, feelings, culture and human relationships, based on our collective and personal relationships with nature. Most of us feel so distant from nature in everyday life that we no longer realize how deep our feelings are, and how important nature is to how we live in the world.

Just as importantly, understanding our relationship to nature can be a key to addressing many problems that seem to be impenetrable barriers to a better future. For example, empathy, altruism, even heroism as well as "why can't we all get along" make much more and much deeper sense when we reflect on our complex place within nature, and our relationship with the rest of life.

Many readers will find themselves reflecting on their own feelings and experiences with the natural world-and we all have them, wherever we are. Nature writers usually inspire us to experience our positive feelings about nature and to add to them, which this book also does. But as Jung wrote, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious."

It is now very important to dig into our unconscious fears and unconscious barriers to allowing the truth of our place in the natural world to determine our behavior. This book also gently explores some of that darkness.

Last but not least, the writers that Nicholsen quotes on nearly every page-including Paul Shepard, Jack Turner, Gary Snyder, James Hillman-are writers from different "fields" who have read and admired each other's work. Now their insights are combined, and the reader who doesn't know them has the bonus experience of being introduced to a host of powerful writers and original minds.
By bringing together so many other voices, including the perceptions that modern artists like Cezanne and Klee share with indigenous peoples, she brings to light many hidden relationships to nature we all have in common.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

Although some elements of the following come from pieces published in Orion and the Wild Duck Review, this is the first appearance of this essay.

copyright 1999
by William Severini Kowinski

COMING HOME TO THE PLEISTOCENE by Paul Shepard. Island Press, hardcover and paperback.
THE ROAD HOME, A Novel by Jim Harrison. Paper: Washington Square Press 1999, 464 pages.
GAIN by Richard Powers. Paper: Picador, 1999. 388 pages
POWER by Linda Hogan. paper: W.W. Norton, 1999. 248 pages.

What is 'home' and where is it? What is power, what is gain? And what's to be gained by considering these four books together--will it make you more powerful? Will it tell you how to get home?
How important these concepts are to our lives and times is clearer when we consider the opposites they imply: loss, helplessness; exile, homelessness, alienation. These are obsessive themes of the 20th century that remain disturbingly relevant as we begin the 21st, though in different ways, raising different issues. These ways and issues that will likely dominate debate as well as our lives for years to come are cogently defined in this trio of novels by three of our better fictionists, and a summary work by a scholar whose reputation is still growing.

If there are any historians in the late 21st century, looking back to find the most important thinkers of the 20th, they'll likely move quickly past one-noters like Einstein, pause for awhile at Jung, nod appreciatively at a few scientists, artists and social critics, and then settle with great interest on Paul Shepard. Their attitude towards his obscurity in his own time will either be amused or dour, depending on how the 21st century is turning out. Are these historians huddled in abandoned malls, refugees from a botched civilization, scribbling with the last manufactured ink and wondering how to actually make the stuff? Are they gazing down at a devastated planet from Bill Gates' space station? Then they are rueful and bitter that humankind again ignored the threads of answers they had. Or are they confidently chronicling the vague beginnings of the ongoing transformation to save humankind and revive the remnants of the planet? Then they are reading Shepard as a cogent prophet. In any scenario save the least likely (that 2099 looks pretty much like 1999 but with faster toys) Shepard's work will be of supreme relevance.

One of the founders of the ecology movement in the early 1970s, Paul Shepard almost immediately disappeared down his own path of inquiry and advocacy. At the time of his death in 1996,almost none of his books were in print, despite their acknowledged influence on heavy-hitters in many fields such as James Hillman, Gary Snyder, E.O. Wilson, Theodore Roszak and Kirkpatrick Sale. As the new century starts, all of his books are available, thanks largely to Island Press and the University of Georgia Press. Two have been published posthumously: an essay collection (Encounters With Nature) and Coming Home to the Pleistocene, the last book he completed, which is edited for maximum clarity by his wife, naturalist and essayist Florence R. Shepard. It serves well as an introduction to Shepard's major lines of thought as expressed in the thousands of pages of earlier work, with their sweeping and subtle ideas derived from obsessive scholarship, boldly and poetically expressed.

The title sums up the main premise of his work: that we became fully human, in body, mind and as societies, in the 5,000 centuries--half a million years--of the Pleistocence, and that this subsequent brief period of what we call history and civilization has been a grand and tragic botch, contrary to our natures and the necessary relationships we had achieved with the rest of nature.

We're familiar with the standard view of the Caveman, of the ignorant, cruel and superstitious primitive living nasty, brutal and short lives of noisy desperation. This view has accumulated its own superstitions, as the repository of our projections about the worst we dread and fear in ourselves and fellow humans, which we mythologize as the savagery and selfishness of human nature, controlled only by force and civilization. But Shepard doesn't see the modern world's destruction of the natural world as a product of human nature. Our ills are caused precisely by the opposite: by the systems we have created in the period we call civilization, resulting in entrenched behaviors and ways of thinking that are not only anti-nature but contrary to human nature as it was formed in the vastly longer period of the Pleistocene.

But this is no rewarmed resurrection of the noble savage: as Shepard demonstrates in the elaborate mosaic of his work, these are complex societies evolving along with the human genome in intimate relationship with the rest of the natural world. These relationships shaped our genetic makeup. This is how our ancestors developed social structures and ways of life that were human, not utopian. Nature was not a collection of objects: neither "natural resources" nor cute and cuddly symbols. Human relationships with other life included learning through close examination, imitation, respect, fear, cooperation, awe and the paradox of killing creatures for your sustenance that you know deeply, deeply admire, even worship--a living paradox apparently too complex for modern minds to accommodate.

It's no creative leap or comic coincidence that in our time "prehistoric man" became mythologized as the Flintstones, a family based on the sitcom version of Ralph Kramden and the urban working class. This preconceived bias links stereotypes that are little more that symbols of what we think we're better than: caveman, peasant, immigrant, country bumpkin, redskins, bush babies, Polacks, Joe Six-pack. According to fashionable mythology, they are all poor, boorish and ignorant. But Shepard turns the tables in a sentence from a previous book: "Modern men are no smarter, kinder, or more creative than their forebears of a quarter of a million years ago." In many ways hunter-gatherer humans were more sophisticated and complex, and lived better, too. In other hands, this assertion could be wishful thinking, a sentimental projection as egregious as the opposite stereotype. But Shepard's work is thorough and complex. In this book, he finds more contemporary examples in traditional Native cultures, which lends further weight to his model.

"The cruelest form of modern criticism of primal peoples depicts them as stingy and greedy as anybody else,"Shepard writes, "implying that to be human is to be selfish." Yet as Shepard shows, our reflexive notion of what constitutes human nature is of human beings in one basic meta-system that underlies everything from medievalism to consumer capitalism: the centralizing force of agriculture.

Hunter-gatherer bands went to where the food was at any given time, usually on a landscape they intimately knew. Dependence on farming meant that people stayed in one place, and ample crops had to arrive on time or they would starve. From this simple fact arises all that we know as history: the religions and their leaders and bureaucracies that existed to guarantee crops by direct link and propitiation of the gods (or goddesses) and later by the quasi-religious leader and his bureaucracies who rule the land, guarantee the crops will grow and be efficiently distributed: the king, the government, the state. Animals are domesticated, wars are fought, civilizations rise and fall, all over protein and carb. Soon comes the hunger for the chimera of guaranteed personal abundance and its gleaming symbols, such as gold.

This dependence on One Crop necessitates everything from one true God and one central authority to the science and machinery to guarantee it. It is behind all our social and cultural systems that, Shepard maintains, stunt our growth and twist our 'human nature' as individuals as well as societies. Mostly we don't mature in synch with nature, but stay dependent. (He works the individual aspect out most carefully in a prior book, Nature and Madness.) It's a profound reversal of all we've been taught: the 'primitive' human is not so simple, and we, it turns out, are arrested in adolescence, psychotically oversimplified.

Just as farms necessitate the state, the production of crops is the model for all economic production. Industrialization is just farming by other means. You can see this clearly on the great American highway--on Route 101 north of San Francisco, for instance: the fields of grapevines around Somona become the fields of new Fords and Toyotas and the fields of identical office buildings approaching Petaluma. Of course, the huge factory farms and livestock factories we never see are visibly clearer examples. A single pig factory, ecologists claim, creates more toxic waste than Los Angeles.

Shepard shows that on a global level the monoculture begins with agriculture. Everything becomes a crop, subject to control, and what grows fastest and best drives out all else. Farmers don't need diversity; nomads do. As we deplete diversity, we end up as global cultivators. The entire world becomes a farm (including our "wilderness areas."). Yet wild nature is part of our nature, and we have not evolved beyond that interdependence. We are losing what made us: the complexity, integrity and reality of wild life. So few of us feel truly at home in this world because we aren't. Our feeling of lostness, loneliness and longing can be traced back to the lost home of the Pleistocene, and Nature as our necessary Other.

We can't go back to being hunter-gatherers, at least not voluntarily and not in the same form, though Shepard's apparently pale hope that "we may recover some social principles, metaphysical insights, and spiritual qualities from their way of life by reconstructing it in our our milieu" may not be so far-fetched, especially if world population steeply declines in the 21st and 22nd centuries, as some demographers expect. In the struggle to control or at least influence our destinies we might reflect on the possibility that we long for a lost home because we were indeed at home in the world once, and for a long time. This home is not only a place in nature, it is our nature. We have met the home, and it is us. It is what we are made for, because it is what we were made with.
In this book and in the totality of his work, Shepard suggests what forms of culture fit our human form, the kind of society in the natural world in which we still struggle and strive and make collosal mistakes, but we are always at home--or perhaps as in the title of Ursula LeGuin's novel suggests, Always Coming Home.

While LeGuin's novel is set in a future which is something like Shepard's vision of the past, Jim Harrison writes about journeys to a home in our own time, yet not in its centers of commerce and control. Here on the margins his characters get glimpses, pieces of pictures, of home.


JIM HARRISON's literary voice has always been unique and entertaining, and this aspect of his craft reaches something of an apotheosis in The Road Home. Partly it is the off-center language, a combination of the contemporary and antique (to my knowledge he is the only well-known novelist to regularly employ the words "otiose" and "captious", which to me are so arcane that I still have to look them up whenever I read him.) Partly it is the construction and cadences: while his sentences are logical and perfectly formed, his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids. Within them sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic.

Harrison typically builds his stories with an ongoing narration that links recollections of the main action, often as written in journals or letters. In this book, almost everything is presented as having been previously written down by the characters. Still, Harrison's prose always has the sound of speech, even if no one actually speaks that way, except maybe Harrison, at least in interviews. This voice is heard most clearly in the many cogent, witty and epigrammatic observations and asides his characters make. All of these elements coalese somewhere near perfection in this novel, making every page a pleasure to read (especially after the first 100, which seem a bit awkward compared to the 350 that follow.) Perhaps Harrison's years of meditation inform this exactness, along with his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat.

Harrison's subjects and the elements of contemporary life are also odd, when compared to the dominant urban-centered and Zeitgeist-minded fiction. In his last novel, Dalva, his unhinged heroine came home to the family homestead, a sprawling ranch in Nebraska, established by the progenitor John Northridge in the mid 19th century. Dalva is a Northridge, a multigenerational family of Euro-Americans with several points of alliance and intermarriage with the Lakota Sioux of these plains. The Road Home is a kind of sequel, moving the narrative forward a little in time, but basically adding more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him elsewhere), the son she put up for adoption and first meets as a young man ,her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother.

There is a remarkable sense of continuity in these four generations, and it is predicated on the land. (In his non-fiction collection, Just Before Dark, Harrison notes that even today Nebraska reminds him of "what America was supposed to look like before it became something else.") Life on the Northridge ranch is simple and yet highly cultivated. Here the Northridge generations hike, ride and hunt, eat and drink gloriously, read books and talk and write about them, keep journals and read past journals of others, so the past is a considered part of their present. Of course it wouldn't be a Harrison narrative without swales, dogs and garlic, so these too are part of his most integrated vision of home.

There is one self-conscious wanderer in this book, whose journey to find a lost home is actual. Dalva's son Nelse, who as a young man read a magazine article about nomads (likely an excerpt of Bruce Chatwin's book, The Songlines)and set out to be a deliberate nomad, traveling the west with no fixed address, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings." But Nelse was adopted and he doesn't know his mother's identity. His wandering takes on another purpose when he seeks and finds Dalva and his ancestral home, repeating Dalva's own journey in the previous novel, the last section of which was called "Coming Home." This is another function of home in this novel: as a place where journeys begin and end, and where lives can be recollected in tranquility in between.

The characters are torn from home by their own passions and obsessions (principally love and art); and their lives, particularly those of the men, are permanently distorted by war (from the Indian wars through World War I, Korea and Vietnam.) The road home is everyone's life's journey. And so this novel--this two-volume saga--presents the births, dreams, marriages, sex, misunderstandings, regrets, brawls, tantrums, brushes with the law, even some gun-play of characters that live over a century of American history. The real-time events in the novel are mostly the rhythmic activities of daily life, and the big events are mostly remembered. Because of this considered, precisely expressed observation and thought, each event has texture and density. In turn, memories and the thoughts and emotions they evoke give more weight and dimension to the simple acts of living, which become rituals of affirmation and grief.

Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, although here the landscape is also cultivated. This isn't wilderness or the Pleistocene--it is the Midwest formed from the frontier by stubborn Scandinavians, who provide Harrison with some piquant and McMurtryesque minor characters. Still, everything about this family refers ultimately and deeply to the land, including their name. Home is a place of grounding, and therefore it is vital that it be a home that sits in nature, that partakes of timelessness in the modern age. Like the homes of the foragers, it's a place to go away from and come back to, yet unlike the Pleistocene foragers, the contemporary forager is never quite sure where he is or what she's looking for, or why they wander. ( Though Paul Shepard is not among the many writers Harrison generously names in the text, it's hard to believe Harrison hasn't read and been influenced by him.)

Dogs and horses are as individual and perhaps as important as people in this novel, and contact with the land is the lifeblood of these characters. It's when people can no longer ride or hunt that they know it's time to die. The deaths, both violent and natural, are prominent, and several are described at length, giving this book an elegiac tone as well as an epic scope. The Road Home also leads to death, the home where the journey ends. The sense of elegy extends also to the land, which the characters often fret about, whether it is on the ranch or on the backroads. When one is faced with imminent loss, the only creative act is careful remembering. Memory is another home.

This pair of novels offers unusual possibilities--reading and re-reading each in relation to the other, reading parts of one that match up with the same time or event in the other, finding the symmetries that might be fate or beauty or both, and otherwise discovering the literary rendering of the hypertext of life.

There is a sense here not of an ending but of a kind of completion, as well as in the coincident publication of Harrison's new and collected poems, The Shape of the Journey (Copper Canyon Press). "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime," Harrison asserts in his preface to a series of Zen inspired poems, included in this substantial and revelatory volume. The Road Home is the work of a lifetime, in that sense and more.
The home where these roads lead is not ideal, but the best there is now. Harrison's achievement is to do so well what he observes in music of birds, as he writes in the last line of the last poem in The Shape of the Journey: "They sing what and where they are."


GAIN is one of what author Richard Powers calls his 'bottom up' books, (like Operation Wandering Soul) that begin with the characters and their stories, rather than his more popular and praised'top down' books (Goldbug Variations, Galatea 2.2) that begin with a structural premise. Yet it is the structure that dominates Gain: a contrapuntal narration of more than a century of a single corporation's history juxtaposed with the course of one contemporary woman's cancer, which was likely caused by exposure to chemical byproducts released by that corporation.

The ironies, poignance and, in a fairly large sense for our civilization, the tragedy, is embedded in this scenario through the corporation's chief product: soap, to make us clean and white, to purify us from disease and the dirt of the earth. What product could be more benign, more helpful? It is among the most intimate of products, redolent with the smell and security of home. Yet the cancer that it indirectly causes smashes the safety that home represents. Powers gives this another literal edge, as the costs of cancer mean that Laura--the woman with cancer--might lose her home, which she thinks of as a kind of being: "She must have been mad. Had some crazed idea that the house would be her safe haven. Would always take care of her. She's spent years taking care of it, keeping up her end of the deal. But now, at the first called debt, the house gets ready to renege."

Read the first pages of a Powers book and be dazzled--nobody, not even DeLillo or Pynchon--can dance like this: fancy footwork, bouncing references, slant puns and daring patter. This breathtaking dazzlement isn't sustained, as it probably can't be, though it flares often enough in pages and passages. So it goes in Gain, though in more muted tones. Beside the prose of his other novels, Gain is stark, sometimes even awkward. Perhaps one of the major themes demands it: No author can tapdance with cancer, even if the sufferer who is described is trying to do so, putting up a brave but ultimately empty defense.

For me the major weakness of this book is this contrapuntal structure. A popular structure these days--from Stoppard plays and earlier Jim Harrison fictions to TV dramas--it seems ready-made to contrast the corporate with the personal, the big accidental cause with the deep effect of the accident. Here, after a hundred pages or so it seems to bleed the energy out of both halves of the story. But I read this book over a long period; a faster reading might redeem the structure. Personally, I couldn't read it more continuously. In addition to my note-taking for themes, referents and felicitous phrases, I had to stop rather often for anguish. It was the hardest novel for me to read that I can remember, because of the cancer sections.

Not just the echoes of my mother's long bouts of treatments, crises, remissions before her cancers killed her (the hardest parts to read were the things I didn't realize at the time that she was likely going through)but in the very specific contemplation of my own future and of those I love. For American women at this moment, the chances of manifesting cancer are one in three. For American men it's one in two--the flip of a coin. It is our slow-motion plague, none the less destructive for forms of it being less fatal these days, as it still surrenders us to the humiliations of hospitals and the arbitrary power of insurance companies. Cancer evokes the fear not only of death and pain but of powerlessness, and exile.

Regardless of its structure, however, Gain is rich in themes and subthemes that illuminate American history and current dilemmas. Few other novelists have been brave enough to directly explore the meaning of corporate power. (Though Jim Harrison refers to effects of business on the landscape, his characters rarely even work for a living.) Powers describes the curious status in the law that allows corporations the legal privileges of a person without commensurate responsibilities, so that each business becomes infinitely more powerful than actual individuals, and it need never die. "The limited-liability corporation: the last noble experiment, loosing an unknowable outcome upon its beneficiaries. Its success outstripped all rational prediction until, gross for gross, it became mankind's sole remaining endeavor." The growth of a kind of organism that overwhelms and ultimately threatens the life of the larger organism it inhabits is of course the model for both cancer and the corporation.

Corporations as persons have made the earth their home and property,changing the relationship of mere humans to the natural world. In the end, " The earth had become a factory. Humankind scrambled to emulate the productive reliability of its machines."

"Gain" is a concept from applied science as much as business or, for that matter, religion. As usual, Powers deals meticulously with the science, though this time it is not the clean abstraction of higher physics and computer chip-inspired theories of mind, but the practical chemistry of making us clean. He really does tell the story of soap and its manifold uses (to clean the rubber to make tires to win World War II, for example)with such richness as to make a corporate history hack green with envy. In fact he also chronicles corporate p.r. from early advertising to greenwashing and the management of desire; for this also he has the perfect industry, since the cliche everyone seems to use when decrying the inappropriate application of business principles to, say, art or medical care, is that they're "selling it like soap."

Yet this book is not anti-business, any more than it (or any of Powers' books) is anti-science. What happy ending the novel has posits a corporate science solution to the painful death this corporate and science alliance causes, though too late for the woman whose life the narrative follows. So, too, would the corporate hack's hackles be soothed at the novel's conclusion. As its protagonist, nearing her last check-out, totes up her personal balance sheet, she decides that corporate science has given her more than it is now taking away. "The world is her spent purchase," she mused, and noted that life--that ultimate industry--goes on without her, maybe without anybody ("Lovely lichen will manufacture soil on the sunroofs of the World Trade," she speculates.)

There is a certain unflinching bravery in Powers ability to look all the implications in the face and express them (something he shares with Shepard.) Does Powers say that we have gained the world only to lose our souls? I don't think so. Readers, like reviewers, may be tempted to find only support for their ideology in this unflinching exposition and rumination. Yet the biggest joke pulled by pun-conscious Powers may be that his evaluation of gain versus loss in the soap industry turns out to be a wash.

On the one hand, corporations cause cancer, and in a sense they are the cancer of the earth. But they are responding to human wants. Powers' history doesn't provide the long context that Shepard does; perhaps he's hinting that this is human nature, rather than a long inbred reaction, expressed as greed, to the fear of want if the crops fail. In Powers' formulation, cancer is the price we pay for our way of life, for our desire. These are Laura's last words: "People want everything. That's their problem."

A man's home is his castle, the saying goes, linking domicile with dominion over it. Castle walls protect from outside invasion, safeguarding as well the king's power over the land. Moving the metaphor to the individual, making and keeping a true home depends upon power over one's life and land. In Gain, our power is diminished by corporate power, which in Shepard's terms is essentially an extension of centralized agriculture and its belief system expressed by the monotheistic desert religions and a science that sees the world as essentially made of dead objects to manipulate for apparent short-term gain. What happens to individuals in the modern world as a result, has happened to entire indigenous cultures, including those of our hemisphere. "Would it have been a different world if someone had believed our lives were as important as theory and gold?" wonders Omshito, an American Indian, the 16 year old narrator and center of Linda Hogan's new novel, Power.

To complete the circle back to Shepard, after journeys through the very different contemporary landscapes etched by Harrison and Powers, is to confront the world's surviving indigenous peoples, whose deepest living traditions provide the strongest remaining link to the Pleistocene way of life that made humans human.

Harrison's saga is deeply involved in the confrontation and relationships of Euro-Americans and Indians on the Plains. His heroine Dalva has Lakota blood and has her son with a young Lakota man, the love of her life. The late 19th century events surrounding Wounded Knee are central to the first volume, and near the end of the second there is a ritual affirmation that expresses both the kinship and the distance between the Northridge clan and the indigenous peoples.

A thread that runs through Powers' book is the destruction of Native peoples, their cultures and worldview, necessitated by the cancerous spread of corporate business. He notes in several places the shameful ironies of a dominant power that destroys the Indians as it buys up and uses their images, compounded in the devilishly ironic name of his soap company's first big product, called Native Balm.

But increasingly now, we can hear the stories of these confronting cultures, the effects of those confrontations, and the nature of what was destroyed and is still being lost, from Native writers themselves. From the illuminating analyses of Native languages by Jeannette Armstrong to the witty and trenchant commentary on science and history by Vine Deloria, Jr., these writers are expressing what one Native activist calls the"Native paradigm," the counterpart to the so-called New Paradigm and its concepts of deep ecology, sustainability, biodiversity,and biophilia, all of which are basically abstracted aspects of traditional Native cultures.

The Native Paradigm emerges not from theory but from untold centuries of experience, study and revelation. Though this paradigm survives in the traditions of peoples who have made this land their home for millennia, much of it is still so foreign to the dominant monoculture as to be very difficult to comprehend. "The study of native cultures tends to lead you far afield from all you have learned, including much more that you have perceived and assumed was real." Jim Harrison observes in an essay. "At first this is disconcerting, but there are many benefits to letting the world fall apart."

Perhaps cushioning the fall for non-Indian readers, and opening up access points to Native sensibilities, are the fictions and poems of contemporary Native writers, from the "grandfather" generation of N. Scott Momaday through the "grandchildren"--the Sherman Alexie generation of writers in their 30s and 20s. It is especially among the writers of the middle generation who came of age in the 1960s that mastery is growing in the novel form, providing a larger and deeper portrait of Native cultural legacy by using the novel's potential to embody complexity, and to express emotional, moral, intellectual and cultural contexts simultaneously in an involving and enriching reading experience. This European form has become the most widespread, rich and accessible means of storytelling in our era in almost every culture on earth.

Though they are still often ignored by the literary establishment, today's mature Native novelists-- such as Craig Lesley, Louise Erdrich, James Welsh and especially Leslie Marmon Silko-- have created contemporary classics as exciting and various as the novelists of any period, anywhere.

High on this list is Linda Hogan, self-consciously a Native American writer of Chickasaw heritage,and a literary artist in the "western" sense as well, of poems, essays, stories and plays. She has written three novels, each magically absorbing, and each more formally accomplished, while doing what the novel allows and cherishes--expanding the possibilities of the form to illuminate in new ways. In this case, to suggest a radically different notion of power than non-Native world is used to.

The artistry of this relatively short novel is astounding. Hogan grows stronger in what was already her strong suit: combining the sensory/sensual and the mystical/mysterious to create unique descriptions that are intensely alive. There is also a robust plot, with enough action for several feature films, and social relevance for several TV movies. Yet it is also a personal story: mesmerizing moment-by-moment description in a classic adolescent coming to awareness tale. Holding it all together is a strong narrative momentum and a conceptual structure of classic simplicity that opens the door to the kind of complexities that blow the assumed world apart.

Though the story is clearly and beautifully told, nothing here is simple or completely resolved. There are surprising plot turns and paradoxes, and even minor characters are more than one dimensional. Hogan's writing is sensate, lyrical and at times hypnotic. Omshito's voice is at once oracular and realistic and wholly likeable. All of this makes Power (along with Hogan's very different previous novels) not only a multidimensional glimpse of Native life and belief, but a contemporary classic of American literature. For imaginative power and literary artistry, Linda Hogan is unsurpassed by any living author.

A crucial example of this artistry is found in Hogan's explorations of doubleness. It has become something of a cliche to describe today's American Indians as "walking in two worlds," and Hogan explores the complex combinations of this reality through one girl's life, but she also expands it to encompass the themes of history and of humans in nature--the obsessions as well in Shepard, Harrison and Powers.

The novel's narrator, the 16 year old girl, is ambivalent about her life as the novel begins. Omshito is a member of the fictional Taiga people, but she lives in a poor Florida swampland town with her mother (who gave up the old ways to seek salvation in Christianity and in trying to pass for white middle class), her pretty sister and the stepfather who beats her. She keeps her distance from the Old Place, the last outpost of Taiga to live a traditional life in an enclave beyond the swamp, but is drawn to Ama, an elder Taiga woman who lives in a house alone between these two worlds. Omshito likes listening to Ama's stories, but claims, "I'm not a person who believes the way she does, because it's a different world what with houses and highways."

But the order of these worlds is shaken up, first by a fierce storm ( Hogan's long narration of it is a breathtaking tour de force), and then by the central event of the novel: Ama's deliberate killing of a Florida panther, member of an endangered species, with Omshito as a witness. While this act is universally condemned by the non-Native community (which likely would have applauded it a decade earlier, and was largely responsible for the panther nearing extinction) it is a morally and culturally complex act for Omshito and her Taiga people, who identify themselves with the panther. Their stories say the panther taught them the mysteries of life.

By this time however, the few surviving panthers are all diseased and starving. Omshito is also aware that the Taiga people are as few and as endangered as the panthers themselves, and that like the panthers, they are valued only as mascots while considered inconvenient and dangerous in the modern world, while the world that sustains them is inexorably destroyed. The meaning of the panther kill cannot be separated from the clash of Native and modern worlds. The modern world objectifies nature and insists on simple answers. Indigenous cultures live in and with nature, and struggle with the complexities of the relationships.

Omshito's fated double view is embedded in her two names: at home she is Sissy, but her Taiga name is Omshito, which means the one who watches. The two worlds of non- Native and Native are mirrored in the two worlds of transcendent and visible reality, with cracks and openings (and also doors closing) between them. Some characters live in one or the other world, Ama lives between them, but everyone is somehow divided. Of the panther killing (and the resulting two trials, by the county court and tribal elders) Omshito is of two minds, seeing two truths which contradict each other, and two sides which are both wrong and both right. Omshito is the most conflicted, both at home and a foreigner in each world, but her clear-eyed observation and stubborn journey to commitment is a remarkable and revelatory variation on the adolescent search for identity and meaning.

There is a doubleness to Hogan's notion of power as well (as, in the human dominated world, is Richard Powers'). The vividly described hurricane is the ultimate power of primal nature, but nature is also a victim of human power. The panthers are "protected" while their habitat is destroyed. They are often killed by cars and sometimes choked by the tracking collars placed on them by state biologists. The dramatic panther hunt includes crossing a highway, and takes place in wooded and swampy strips with houses so near that Omshito hears a radio playing. She can still fish for bass, but they are too poisoned to eat. The spring which the Spanish once believed was the Fountain of Youth is so polluted no one can drink from it.

The doubleness extends to double meanings and ambiguity, a powerful if recently neglected tool of poetry, and also in Hogan's hands the means to express a Native experience of reality. From the start, Omshito sees not just the ground-level world, but the mastodon bones and remnants of ancient seabeds below, and the forces that gather the clouds. Her here and now is inhabited by the cycles of time that brings past and future into the present. When Omshito says "the earth was bleeding" it is an observation of a sky reddening from the horizon, but also a literal description of a wounded being. Hogan is fleshing the bones of such often quoted and little understood concepts as "Everything is alive."

Implications of the earth as sacred are also explored, including a Native meaning to the fall from Paradise, and the story involves some of the most primal human mysteries, largely absent from contemporary fiction, such as the meanings of sacrifice and scapegoats, redemption and salvation.

The conflicting notions in Native and non-Native cultures of how power is manifested of course also plays a part. Though Omshito professes not to believe in the old ways, from the beginning she shows a healthy respect for the power of some elders to kill and to cure by somehow harnessing the earth's own magic. Her mother believes more forcefully--though not without reluctance and shame--that the power of money and non-Native culture is stronger now than what her traditions teach her is true power and knowledge.

In the end Omshito rejects her mother's Christian beliefs for the old ways of the Taiga elders, yet Christianity is part of her given world now, and she sees her world also in terms familiar to Christianity. In particular she gives a new Native meaning to the idea of the fall from Paradise, with new repercussions. "It was all fallen, this poisoned, cut world....Unloved and disgraced and torn apart. Fallen, that's what this world is. And betrayed."

What in a poisoned, cut world is power? What in a fallen world is home? In Omshito's story, home is a commitment, however imperfect. Even though her beloved Ama has been exiled by her own people, Omshito's journey leads back to the Old Place. Utopia is not a home, as writer Eduardo Galeano says in a little fable, but the walk to get to its ever-receding horizon. Home is not utopia--it's just home: where your heart belongs, and makes its stand.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

This is a version of a review I wrote for, and therefore is pretty introductory in tone and content. Since then, I 've come across Robin Ridington's analysis of historical references that he believes the author, Thomas King, mischievously integrates in the text, most of which I missed completely. Ridington spots many references for example to 19th century Cherokees who figured in the Indian Removals. Ridington suggests that the artist in the novel, Monroe Swimmer, is a combination of President Monroe (who started the removal policy) and a Cherokee medicine man of the period, named Swimmer. "Swimmer is an artist who paints the white men out of the landscape," Ridington writes, "literally a reversal of Indian removals..." His article about all this is called "Happy Trails to You," published in Canadian Literature 167, and is on the Internet at his site,

All of which makes my reading still valid but only part of the story...

TRUTH & BRIGHT WATER a novel by Thomas King. Atlantic Monthly Press, $24. Grove Press paperback, $13.

"You know what's wrong with this world?" says the famous Native American artist who returns to his home town and paints a church to blend into the landscape so completely that it becomes invisible. "Nobody has a sense of humour." (That's how they spell "humor" in Canada, which is where author Thomas King lives.) Another character has already decided that this is the same thing that's wrong with white people, and with Indians. But it's certainly not a problem for Thomas King, a Native author of Cherokee and Greek descent. He ambushes you with humor that hits you twice-first when you laugh out loud, and then when you realize it's terribly true.

Thomas King is the author of two previous novels (Medicine River is also a gently funny TV movie that's worth renting; Green Grass, Running Water is currently being filmed), numerous short stories, and some sharply funny poems concerning the trickster Coyote. He's also a photographer who made a series of portraits of Native writers wearing Lone Ranger masks. There's a little of all those kinds of humor in this book.

Truth is a small railroad town in Montana and Bright Water is the Indian reserve just across a river in Canada. This contemporary story starts with a mystery involving a phantom woman leaping into that river and leaving behind a small skull, and meanders through these two communities and the interweaving lives of several characters whose lives started here and sometimes circled back, until it ends at the river again.
The voice telling the story belongs to a fifteen year old boy whose name is spoken exactly once, by someone who is less than reliable. (It may or may not be Tecumseh.) The boy and all the characters are Native Indian (as they say in Canada), except perhaps his dog Soldier, a major character. Their tribes aren't mentioned either. But everything else-the voices, memories, characters, the buildings, and the landscape dancing in fog-are definite and alive.

As these characters (the boy's best friend, his separated parents, his footloose aunt, his grandmother who he says isn't a witch but seems to have acted like one, the returned artist, and a woman who is convinced that Marilyn Monroe was an Indian) live their daily lives, they expose their weaknesses and deploy their defenses of observation, desire and creativity. They also present us with more mysteries. The first one is solved, but some others should keep reading groups talking for hours. Even some of the jokes are time bombs that don't go off until you think about them later.

The boy who leads us through this (not always understanding the significance of what he describes) is a truly made and admirable character, with the dreams, survival instincts, and practical literalism about the adult world of a believable rural small town teenager. His Native identity is never asserted but never doubted, it's just part of his life. For example, Tecumseh (if that's really his name) feels a relationship with the buffalo that wind their way through the story in different forms, and he is also interested in trying out the Internet, and someday visiting the West Edmonton Mall.

The author is able to say quite a bit about Native people in today's world without hitting us over the head with either a stark version of the truth or our ignorance. But we absorb it, from the setting, the stories, and the characters and their sometimes biting wit.

Thomas King has become a master of novel narrative, which he enriches with suggestions of Native history, myth and traditional forms of storytelling. This is an easy book to read and a hard one to leave. For all the crosscurrents of humor, heroism, tragedy and evil, it flows with the ingenuity of the human heart applied to the complexities of everyday life.
This is the most impressive story the author tells as well as exemplifies: the artistry of the ordinary.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

A version of this review appeared in Orion magazine.
THE ROAD HOME, A Novel by Jim Harrison. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998. 464 pages, $25. Washington Square Press paperback, $14.

by William Severini Kowinski

"Nebraska reminds me of what America was supposed to look like before it became something else," Jim Harrison comments in "From the Dalva Notebooks," published in his book of non-fiction, "Just Before Dark." Through swirls of events and thickets of passions, obsessions and relationships it takes two novels and some 800 pages to describe, the road home leads to the timeless Nebraska landscape, where as a kind of analogue to other natural cycles, members of the Northridge family walk and hunt with beloved dogs, eat and drink gloriously, make love, ride horses, read and treasure books as well as painting and music, watch birds, observe and take care of the land and each other, ponder, puzzle, reflect, regret and remember, as they had for over a hundred years.

But from the opening sentence of THE ROAD HOME, the capacious and deeply satisfying companion novel to the stunning "Dalva" of a decade ago, the themes of mortality and time are also present. Lives are distorted notably by wars (World War I, Korea, Vietnam), while the land and Native peoples are insistently and inexorably destroyed by rapacious agents of greed and deadly beliefs. There are several deaths (the final home where the road leads) rendered with grace and ceremony and the elegiac rhythms of a writer with some years on his meter.

But the road is also a way, a journey that demands consciousness, clarity and truthful statement, which Harrison produces in an abundance of cogent, witty, memorable, epigrammatic prose. This for me is the foremost achievement of this novel, and at minimum contributes mightily to the pleasure of reading every page. Harrison's years of meditation show clearly in this exactness, as does his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat.

THE ROAD HOME takes the narrative of "Dalva" forward a little in time, but basically it adds more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him in the Dalva Notebooks), the son she first meets as a young man ( who roams the western landscape as a deliberate contemporary nomad, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings"),her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother. This pair of novels offers unusual possibilities--reading and re-reading each in relation to the other, reading parts of one that match up with the same time or event in the other, finding the symmetries that might be fate or beauty or both, and otherwise discovering the literary rendering of the hypertext of life.

Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, but what makes him one of the few novelists of non-urban subjects to win wide readership and establishment praise (even if the New York Times Book Review containing his rave review nevertheless put Tom Wolfe on the cover) is the unique landscape of his writing.

His sentences are rhythmic and perfectly formed, his prose is often formal(he is the only contemporary writer I know who habitually uses the words "captious" and "otiose")but his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids. Sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic. Although almost everything in this book is presented as having been written down in journals and letters, Harrison's prose has the sound of speech, yet no one actually speaks this way, except maybe Jim Harrison, at least in interviews.

I think of Harrison's work also as a bridge, for example, linking urban readers ushered by literary quality to the urgency of attending to the natural world, or by linking nature and culture as only someone with his credentials in both can do. Harrison is profligate and generous in naming the work of specific writers, and their importance in his characters' lives may encourage his readers to seek them out. For me, reading "Dalva" and its accounts of contemporary mixed bloods and the 19th century Lakota was a specific bridge to fiction that is by as well as about Native Americans. (In fact, I found my paperback of "Dalva" on a shelf marked "Miscellaneous" in a small town used bookstore in the central Pennsylvania mountains, along with Peter Matthiessen's "Indian Country," a book of contemporary Native short stories, and novels by Native authors Craig Lesley and Thomas King. I bought and read them all, but started with "Dalva.")

The interplay of present and recollections or rediscoveries of the past form the basic movement of most of Harrison's fiction, and this rises to artful and powerful meaning in THE ROAD HOME. There is a sense here not of an ending but of a kind of completion, as well as in the coincident publication of Harrison's new and collected poems, THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY(Copper Canyon Press). "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime," Harrison asserts in his preface to a series of Zen inspired poems, included in this substantial and revelatory volume. THE ROAD HOME is the work of a lifetime, in that sense and more.

"With all our self-consciousness," writes Ursula LeGuin," we have very little sense of where we live, where we are right here or right now. If we did, we wouldn't muck it up the way we do." Jim Harrison's timely and timeless work has that kind of honesty, urgency and density. His achievement is to do so well what he observes in music of birds, as he writes in the last line of the last poem in THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY: "They sing what and where they are."

Friday, August 16, 2002

THE CITY IN MIND by James Howard Kunstler. Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $25.

THE LIMITLESS CITY: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl Debate by Oliver Gillham. Island Press, 309 pages, $30. ISBN 1-55963-833-8

SOLVING SPRAWL by F. Kaid Benfield, Jutka Terris, and Nancy Vorsanger. National Resources Defense Council/Island Press. 200 pages, paper $20.

THE GOOD IN NATURE AND HUMANITY: Connecting Science, Religion and Spirituality with the Natural World, edited by Stephen R. Kellert and Timothy J. Farnham, Island Press, 278 pages, cloth $28. ISBN 1-55963-838-9

by William Severini Kowinski

From the publication of THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE, James Howard Kunstler has been an informed provocateur in the court house of the built environment, carving out a niche in the marketplace of expression somewhere between Hunter Thompson and Jane Jacobs. Kunstler is known as an advocate, a gadfly, and now officially on the Orion website, a curmudgeon, which tend to obscure his reporting, description and scholarship. But it is these qualities that are particularly sharp in his new book, THE CITY IN MIND.

Chapters on five European capitals, three U.S. cities and Mexico City each narrate a particular history that presents a theme ("Rome: In Search of the Classical," "Atlanta: Does Edge City Have a Future?" for example.) These themes in turn inform further ruminations on cities in general as they are today, while forming an argument about how they should be.

The narratives are often fascinating simply as good reading, and even though he elsewhere allies himself with the New Urbanists, there's no overt attempt to push a particular program. Kunstler sees the virtues of large scale planning in Paris, and the accidentally effective changes that add up to a livable Boston. He doesn't spare the vitriol when conjuring up the sprawling horrors of Atlanta or the altered unreality of Las Vegas, but for a writer with a reputation for attack, the concepts that conspicuously recur are "beauty", "civilized" and "worth living in." These comprise his goals for places.

He remains provocative, even apart from the spasms of verbal abuse. He criticizes advocates of "open spaces" as urban panacea, resulting in "these little cartoons of the countryside deployed everywhere" between the malls and the condos. They are a reflexive but inadequate answer, especially for one city he cites when "everything it contained was so poorly made, not worth caring about, and unworthy of the continuation of collective self-respect called civilization."

Those phrases exemplify a chief virtue of this book: simple and eye-opening eloquence on matters often obscured by thick pastes of jargon. There is no mystery about what Kunstler likes and doesn't like, but that's not the standard that most interests me. Do we really agree that our places should be well made, beautiful and worth caring about and living in, even if we don't share the same vision of what such places would look like? I wonder. The energy of any excesses or arguable propositions the reader might find here is balanced by the power of this central notion: that our civilization reflects our own self-respect.

Kunstler's past work influences those closer to the trench warfare of planning: Oliver Gillham quotes him at length several times in THE LIMITLESS CITY, and the authors of SOLVING SPRAWL start their book by quoting a passage from his HOME FROM NOWHERE, saying it "provides inspiration to those of us who have been concerned about the American landscape." While Kunstler inspires, cajoles, lambastes and celebrates, others in the civic ecology have to sweat the details, figure out what is doable right now, and then do it. They will find a strong foundation of facts, clear analysis and direct, engaging writing in Gillham's THE LIMITLESS CITY.

Formatted in the friendly fashion of a 1950s textbook, it is a peerless one volume summary not only of the urban sprawl debate which is its announced subject, but of much of what has shaped American cities up to the present moment. (It was going to press just after the events of 9-11-01, so while some text on New York City was added, other discussion and photos remain but are now more historic than intended.)

As a broad survey, THE LIMITLESS CITY is a perfect companion to an earlier volume, SOLVING SPRAWL, which focuses on a number of specific examples in U.S. cities and suburbs where the perils of growth and change were transformed into new ideas for places "worth living in." Though each example seems to have been selected to illustrate a solution to problems that recur in various places, the stories are highly individualized, with the players named, the dollar figures given, and the testimony of people who live or trade there.

The writing is crisp, informative and involving-like magazine journalism once was, when magazines published stories about reality. It's an attractive book, with clearly consecutive text broken by unobtrusive sidebars and small but surprisingly sharp and effective color photos.

Since suburban sprawl raised its ugly head as a bizarre counterpart to the dehumanized city, the built environment has gotten more complex and yet more uniform, resulting in both deadly places and wasted spaces. What is wasted by the scorched earth of sprawl is another profound concern.

The issue of sprawl links those whose professional purview is the urban environment with advocates for the natural environment. Thanks to existing sprawl and its effects, "the urban and the rural have cruelly cancelled each other out" as Kunstler observes. Though as Gillham points out, the built places still take up only about 5% of U.S. land, the feeder mechanisms of our society---highways, skyways, the office, farm and manufacturing factories; the mines, grids and strips--- rule over most of it, and threaten to bring ruin to all of it. So it shouldn't be too surprising that an anthology emanating from a conference concerned with connecting science, religion and spirituality with the natural world should include some painful awareness of "often inherently conflicted" moral and civic "responsibilities to both human communities and natural ecosystems and landscapes."

That's how Strachan Donnelley's essay in the anthology, THE GOOD IN NATURE AND HUMANITY, begins. Donnelley is an ethicist trained in philosophy who runs a project focused on regional planning in Chicago. To create a framework for planning, he considers Plato, Darwin, and Aldo Leopold (who he calls "the Alexander Pushkin of American environmental and conservation ethics." A more accessible if perhaps less accurate description of Leopold, the author of THE SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, might be as a godfather of American ecology.) Donnelley also mentions his own background, growing up in Libertyville, Illinois when it was a farm town of 5,000. It is now, he writes, a suburb of some 30,000. Thinking about urban life was more or less forced on him.

Donnelley's conclusion isn't programmatic-just that he has learned particularly through Leopold to apply his more informed and comprehensive understanding of the context of nature to urban planning. But given that what planning considers is usually much more limited than the effects of the plan, this is something. The web of life may be more visible outside the city, but it reaches everywhere. It is a context that is more than physical-- a "moral ecology" and a source of our sense of beauty, quality and places worth living in.

Though the writing in this book's essays is uneven, they demonstrate that the complex concerns involved in the human relationship to the rest of nature must also be addressed in the built parts of the ecology. Nature is not just what sprawl destroys. We are part of it. And it is part of our individual and collective self-respect.

MASTER PASSIONS: Emotion, Narrative, And the Development of Culture by Mihnea C. Moldoveanu and Nitin Nohria. M.I.T. Press. 247 pages, $29.95.

A consultant I knew had just presented some basic psychological concepts of group dynamics to executives of a division in a large and powerful corporation facing painful change, and was driving a couple of the execs back to their office. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he saw that the exec in the back seat had picked up a teddy bear left there by the consultant's child. When the consultant mentioned this in a kidding way, the exec was astonished--he didn't realize he was holding a teddy bear to his heart.

Skills of psychological manipulation may be high art there, but in psychological self-knowledge few places are more primitive than American corporate offices. Denial seems a necessary function of the ambition and envy that authors Moldoveanu and Nohria assert drive the daily operations of allegedly rational, bottom-line businesses in MASTER PASSIONS. The authors are academicians in management and business administration so they apply the fruits of their selected erudition to corporate cultures and those most directly invested and embroiled in it.

Examples from non-working life (especially marital and sexual relationships) and other contexts (like writing a book) also abound. The examples, which they call "thought experiments, are the scariest part of a scary book. They reveal endless spirals of rationalization as tools of denial, as the master passions are justified by master narratives which appropriate history, ideology and cultural norms to create "reasons" that hide the real motives, especially from the perpetrator.

Along the way the authors get in some acerbic and entertaining asides on the dubious claims of economics as a science, or how the subtle ways that baboons manage leadership transitions are more evolved than the clumsy ways that humans usually do it.

Talking about emotions in the land of corporate numbness is fairly radical-emotions have long been devalued by the ideology of "rational choice" and a constricted view of the scientific purview. The work of neuroscientists like Antonio and Hanna Damasio (who the authors don't cite) now support the idea that emotions are primary and not the handmaiden or even the ugly stepsister of reason.

But the authors of this sharp and stimulating book up the ante by asserting that these master passions pulling the strings are inescapable except by escaping the self altogether, through catharsis-- not by blindly acting on them but by "bringing these emotions as emotions before consciousness-becoming conscious of their sway on the body and hold on the mind. It is therefore about wakening to greater self-knowledge."
While this may be the kind of news that fills flipcharts in corporate consulting sessions, it has been basic program of a lot of psychology-Jung's for instance-- for about a century. Even here, the authors remain scary with their examples of those who attained self-knowledge: Shakespeare's Iago and Richard III, two paragons of sociopathic evil. But at least they knew how evil they were, and this, apparently is progress.

The authors don't seem to trust the conceptual mind to deal with the master passions and change behavior. There is little shrift given to developing a sense of proportion, of countervailing feelings or forces or disciplines within and without that could break the tyranny of the big bad passions without denying them. They don't acknowledge recent ideas about emotional intelligence, from Daniel Goleman to Martha Nussbaum.

Their only advice on how to escape the master passions sounds an awful lot like Zen meditation. Perhaps ambitious for the book's success, envious of other corporate gurus and fearing to lose half their audience, they never call it that. Meditation is a valid technique to apply, but my reading of contemporary Zen writers (Mark Epstein, for instance) suggests they would advise some conscious thought and effort as well, as one of many possible personal and cultural strategies to shift the internal balances towards other passions and more conscious control of actions, especially in order to keep those passions from hurting others. The authors are certainly correct, however, that the first steps are to acknowledge that we have these passions, and to understand as fully as possible their power to motivate and deceive.

The authors intend this book to be an "invitation to reflection" on the complex mechanisms at work, leading the reader to "understand social phenomena from within." But by concentrating on the subjective (the motives for actions) and essentially ignoring the object (the actions themselves and their results in the world) gives the book an amoral aura, and adds to its claustrophobic tinge of horror. At worst, it could be used to justify even more bad behavior: I pollute the world because evolution, capitalism or the devil made me do it, is not much changed by the insight that I do it because I have the devil in my heart and I just can't help myself.

Besides, without checking the result of actions, the role of the passions can't be realistically evaluated. I'm not going to preemptively deny the power of fear (the basis of most of the passions discussed here), and I have to admit that until recently I hadn't paid much attention to the prevalence and power of envy. But maybe the authors have spent too much time in business and academia to appreciate some balance. Perhaps envy and ambition drove a certain scientist to ignore the research of others and then claim it as his own, while thousands died unnecessarily of AIDs (as another recent book asserts.) But should we vilify Rachel Carson because in exposing the extent and deadliness of pollution she may have been motivated by the ambition of the whistle-blower? Writing a book may be an act of love as well as ambition.