Love Medicine, a first novel by Louise Erdrich which recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is very much a poet’s novel. By that I mean that the book achieves its effect through moments of almost searing intensity rather than through the rise, climax, and closing of a sustained action, and that its stylistic virtuosity has become almost an end in itself. The prose indeed has remarkable energy and sensuousness. But I found Love Medicine a hard book to penetrate. The episodes, most of them dramatic monologues, are loosely strung together and the relationships of the various narrators and characters are so confusing that one must constantly flip back to earlier sections in an effort to get one’s bearings. The reader who perseveres will undergo an imaginary adoption into a nearly forgotten American Indian tribe.
The subject has much documentary interest. Louise Erdrich, who is herself of Chippewa descent, has created a scroll-like account of the often squalid, demoralized, but at times rhapsodic lives of the Kashpaws, Lazarres, Lamartines, Nanapushes, and Morrisseys—Indian and part-Indian families living on a Chippewa reservation in western North Dakota. The novel begins in 1981, moves back to 1934, and then forward by stages to the present. In the opening episode, June Kashpaw, “a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved,” is picked up in a North Dakota oil boom town by a “mud engineer” who attracts her by rapping on a barroom window as she is passing by. Without hesitating, June goes in.
There were cartons of colored eggs on the bar, each glowing like a jewel in its wad of cellophane. He was peeling one, sky blue as a robin’s, palming it while he thumbed the peel aside, when she walked through the door…. What she walked toward more than anything else was that blue egg in the white hand, a beacon in the murky air.
He ordered a beer for her, a Blue Ribbon, saying she deserved a prize for being the best thing he’d seen for days. He peeled an egg for her, a pink one, saying it matched her turtleneck. She told him it was no turtleneck. You called these things shells. He said he would peel that for her, too, if she wanted, then he grinned at the bartender and handed her the naked egg.
But this lighthearted and sexy exchange has a grim outcome. The two get drunk together and drive out into the countryside while an early spring snowstorm is raging. There the man passes out while trying to make love to June, and June leaves the car, determined to walk home. “The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.” That “came home,” the reader realizes with a shock, is a euphemism for “perished.”
In the second episode we are introduced to the surviving Kashpaws, who have assembled at the old homestead some weeks after June’s funeral. The narrator—this time in the first person—is Albertine Johnson, a young woman who has left the reservation and who, after a “long phase of wickedness,” is now on “the straight and narrow”—studying to become a nurse. She has returned home for a visit. It is at this point that the reader begins to be drawn into a wilderness of relationships through which there is no clear path. To illustrate: Grandma Kashpaw (nee Marie Lazarre) is the aunt (and foster mother) of the late June and the real mother of Gordie, who was at one time married to June; their son is King, an abusive alcoholic wretchedly married to a white girl named Lynette. But June had another son, Lipsha Morrissey, by a different mate. In the novel’s final episode, Lipsha’s father is revealed to be Gerry Nanapush, the gigantic, jail-breaking son of Lulu Lamartine (nee Nanapush), who has eight sons by almost as many fathers. One of Lulu’s lovers is Grandpa Kashpaw, husband of Marie, who, in addition to his legitimate children (among them Albertine Johnson’s mother), has a son, Lyman Lamartine, by the fertile and warmhearted Lulu.
Sooner or later nearly every member of this cast steps forward to participate in a moment of drama or self-revelation. From the medley of individual faces and voices a few generic, or tribal, features gradually emerge. The men get drunk as often as possible, and when drunk they are likely to be violent or to do wildly irresponsible or self-destructive things. Even Grandpa Kashpaw (Nector), the most able and ambitious of the lot, achieved his political standing in the Chippewa community only because Marie repeatedly dragged him back from the bootlegger’s and sometimes sat “all night by the door with an ax handle so he would not wander off in search of liquor.” Self-destructiveness leads in several instances to suicide. Meanwhile the women, with the exception of the stalwart Marie, are likely to take up with any man who comes along.
Officially Catholic, the Kashpaws send their children up the hill to the Sacred Heart Convent for schooling but retain, in shadowy corners of their minds, a number of the ancient tribal beliefs and superstitions. One of the most memorable episodes dramatizes the relationship between the adolescent Marie and a crazed nun who scalds and stabs the girl in an effort to free her from the Devil and then claims that the stab wound on Marie’s hand is nothing less than the holy stigmata. In another episode of comparable intensity we witness the gentle young Lipsha Morrissey, who believes that he has inherited the old Indian “touch,” make a bungled attempt to reconcile the aged Grandma and Grandpa Kashpaw by means of “love medicine”—in this case a mixture of ground-up turkey hearts.
On the face of it, the factual details presented by Louise Erdrich combine to give an appalling account of the lives of contemporary Indians on a reservation—impoverished, feckless lives far gone in alcoholism and promiscuity. Bitter pride alternates with shame; away from the reservation some of them try to account for their dark complexions by claiming to be “French” or “Black Irish.” By implication, Love Medicine delivers an irrefutable indictment against an official policy that tried to make farmers out of the hunting and fishing Chippewas, moving them from the Great Lakes to the hilly tracts west of the wheat-growing plains of North Dakota. But the author’s intentions are more lyrical or rhapsodic than polemical. The pervasive sadness of the Indian condition is offset by proclamations of joy, wisdom, and reconciliation that might go a long way toward making the account more palatable to a sentimental reader. Lulu Lamartine presents herself in this way:
No one ever understood my wild and secret ways. They used to say Lulu Lamartine was like a cat, loving no one, only purring to get what she wanted. But that’s not true. I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms. Sometimes I’d look out on my yard and the green leaves would be glowing. I’d see the oil slick on the wing of a grackle. I’d hear the wind rushing, rolling, like the far-off sound of waterfalls. Then I’d open my mouth wide, my ears wide, my heart, and I’d let everything inside.
After some time I’d swing my door shut and walk back into the house with my eyes closed. I’d sit there like that in my house. I’d sit there with my eyes closed on beauty until it was time to make the pickle brine or smash the boiled berries or the boys came home. But for a while after letting the world in I would be full. I wouldn’t want anything more but what I had.
Alas, the love medicine does not always work, though Louise Erdrich applies it thickly to the wounds and abrasions that her characters suffer. At times the language becomes overwrought to the point of hysteria or else so ecstatic that the reader may feel almost coerced into accepting a romanticized version of a situation—a version that the hard facts belie. But at its best, the writing is admirably graphic, full of unexpected and arresting images and brilliantly dramatized small scenes. Louise Erdrich is in any case a notably talented writer whose first novel, despite its structural problems and stylistic excesses, clearly merits much of the praise it has received.
Rhapsodic extravagances are by no means confined to first novels written by poets. Continental Drift, Russell Banks’s eighth book of fiction, announces its epic intentions with an invocation to a Haitian “loa” or demigod:
Let Legba come forward, then, come forward and bring this middle-aging, white mouth-man [the author] into speech again. Come down along the Grand Chemin, the sun-path, all filled with pity and hardened with anger to a shine…. Give body and entitledness and boldness to this white mouth-man’s pity and anger by covering his shoulders with a proper cloak of shame…
Thus, with the aid of Legba, Banks launches into a novel that stands in sharp contrast to the “postmodernist” experimentation with which he began his career. Although he had already moved from that exhausted soil into more fertile fictional ground with such works as The Book of Jamaica and Trailerpark (a kind of latter-day Winesburg, Ohio), Continental Drift is his biggest and most “commercial” book, a novel that serves up melodramatic action, vividly detailed sex scenes, and lurid accounts of voodoo rituals—all accompanied by a running line of unabashed authorial comment and exhortation. Admirers of Banks’s early fiction, which resisted conventional narrative, may find this objectionable, but his new book strikes me as the most interesting that he has yet produced. Continental Drift is an absorbing and powerful book that ambitiously attempts to “speak” to the times.
The somewhat hokey invocation is soon (and best) forgotten as Banks sets energetically to work telling the “sad story” of Robert Raymond Dubois in a chapter titled “Pissed.” With a narrative and descriptive firmness that I find exhilarating, Banks establishes the drab life of his lower-middle-class protagonist in the drab setting of a decayed New Hampshire mill town, where a half-foot of dirty, crusty snow covers the ground. Bob Dubois (pronounced “Doo-boys”) is an ordinary young man—un homme moyen sensuel—of French-Canadian descent who works as an oil burner repairman to support a wife and two children, a house, and a boat on a weekly paycheck of $137.44. He loves his wife Elaine and his two girls but also sleeps from time to time with a semi-alcoholic young woman who hangs out in a local bar. He is going nowhere. At thirty he feels that his life is over—that “if for the next thirty-five years he works as hard as he has so far, he will be able to stay exactly where he is now, materially, personally.”
This realization strikes him brutally while he is shopping for a pair of expensive skates (his daughter’s Christmas present) and it produces a kind of mini-breakdown. In an explosion of rage and frustration, he smashes the windshield and windows of his car. “I’m not drunk,” he says to a startled woman across the street. “Just pissed.” He arrives home with his face red and puffy from crying, and that night he and his frightened wife talk seriously for the first time of migrating to the Sunbelt—to Oleander Park, Florida, where Bob has the standing offer of a job in his brother Eddie’s liquor store.
Then, audaciously, Banks drops the story of Bob Dubois and moves to prophetic heights from which he views the whole range of human displacement and migration: the flight of a million and a half Somali across the deserts, the movement of Afghan refugees across the Hindu Kush into Pakistan, the flight of Khmer peasants into Thailand. These shifts of disparate populations, inching forward, are compared to the ceaseless movement of sea currents and jet streams and to the drift of continents. Once again the prose overheats:
The universe moves, and everything in it moves, and by transferring its parts, it and everything in it down to the smallest cell are transformed and continue…. To continue, just to go on, with entropy lurking out there, takes an old-fashioned, Biblical kind of heroism. That the seas move, that the waters flow….
The reader, snatched up by a rhetorical whirlwind, grows dizzy but is brought back, just in time, to a small corner of the earth—a daub-and-wattle cabin in Haiti, where an impoverished and fear-ridden family are also contemplating a move to Florida. The story of the poor woman Vanise, her baby, and her nephew Claude as they make their way—island-hopping across the Caribbean—is one of stoical, passive endurance. They are deceived, marooned, cheated, exploited, raped, and buggered before being literally dumped by the sea onto the “Gold-coast” of Florida. Henceforth the Haitian saga alternates with the more mundane account of Bob Dubois and his family. The uprooting of the two families, their struggles, and the disasters they encounter are as different as black and white, but at the novel’s end their fates converge and the two stories are tragically joined.
Though one admires Banks’s boldness in undertaking to write about the travails of the Haitians, which he presents with great authority and a marshaling of authentic-seeming detail, the chapters devoted to it have, I think, a somewhat worked-up quality, a staginess which, though often horrifying and moving, seems to derive more from the author’s head than from a deeper feeling. With the story of Dubois, on the other hand, Banks appears much more at ease. Bob is exploited by his foulmouthed brother Eddie, who pays him badly for working long hours in the liquor store. His wife and children are unhappy in their mobile home, and as his marriage decays, Bob seeks solace in an affair with a black nurse, Marguerite. Then violence enters, in the form of an attempted robbery of the liquor store. Bob kills one of the black robbers on the spot and later, in a harrowing scene, tries to shoot a man he believes to be the robber who escaped. Things fall apart, and in a second effort to make a new start, Bob moves his family to the Florida Keys, where he runs a fishing boat owned by an old friend from Catamount, New Hampshire, who is involved in smuggling both drugs and illegal human cargo. Things then become even worse for Dubois.
Following Dreiser and Dos Passos, Banks assumes in Continental Drift the part of a novelist-historian—in this case the historian of uprootedness and anomie in late-twentieth-century America. Consequently, his characters are presented to a considerable degree as representative types: the long-suffering wife, the big-talking, small-time operator, the various denizens of the flat, scrubby, shopping-mall landscape of central Florida and the drug-running, boating world of the Keys. Although well observed, they are not particularly interesting in themselves; they never really spring to life with Dickensian quirkiness or Dostoevskian intensity and singularity. Still, they fit into Banks’s larger purposes.
The most successfully conveyed is Bob himself, the not-very-bright man of decent impulse who commits one disastrous mistake after another as he tries to cope with the exploitative and murderous aspects of life in America. Exasperating though Bob is, Banks manages to sustain our sympathy for the poor man to the end. I suspect that more than one reader—watching Bob and listening to the heartfelt banalities of his speech—will be reminded of Willy Loman (and of Biff and Hap, too) in Death of a Salesman.
Banks takes great risks when he intrudes and comments in the voice of the author. The invocation of Legba is by no means the only hokey moment in the novel; there’s the “envoi,” too, and various exhortatory passages along the way. But where he is speaking directly about his characters, particularly Bob, his voice helps to shape our responses without overwhelming them:
What kind of man is Bob Dubois, who, although married, keeps for himself the secret privilege of sleeping with women other than his wife? A more sophisticated man than Bob would instantly recognize the lie, and if the lie persisted, if it refused to get itself corrected, would name it a symptom, and before too long, the marriage might be dissolved. But for men like Bob Dubois, it’s different.
For Bob, the facts are these: he loves his wife; he loves other women too, but not as much as he loves his wife; if he betrays his wife by sleeping with other women, and she does not discover it, then he has not been cruel to her….
It’s a very painful and delicate balance, and one cannot be neurotic and hold it.
For the most part the intrusive voice provides sweep and momentum, advancing the action rather than impeding it, and this defiance of the conventions of faceless realism does much to make Continental Drift a vigorous and original novel.