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 Since then, I 've come across Robin Ridington's analysis of historical references that he believes the author, Thomas King, mischievously integrates in the text, most of which I missed completely.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.