Louise Erdrich’s first novel, the prizewinning Love Medicine (1984), presents, as through rifts in a smoke screen, lurid glimpses of the struggle of a group of Chippewa and mixed-blood Indians to cope with a life of poverty, alcoholism, and general demoralization on or near a reservation in North Dakota. The treatment is somewhat confusingly episodic, the prose poetically charged with imagery of exceptional vividness. Her second book, The Beet Queen (1986), deals primarily with the inhabitants of a small North Dakota town in the 1950s and only peripherally with the reservation Indians. Even more episodic in structure, it lacks, I think, the power of its predecessor. Now we have Tracks, which, we are told, is chronologically the first in a projected cycle of four novels. Set between 1912 and 1924, it evokes a brutal period of harsh winters, raging epidemics, famine, and expropriation, and it goes a long way toward accounting for the demoralization and uprootedness that prevails in Love Medicine. Several of the characters of that novel appear as infants or at a much earlier stage in their lives in the new work.
There are two alternating narrators. The first is Nanapush, who in his lifetime has seen his tribe “unraveled like a coarse rope, frayed at either end as the old and new among us were taken.” Nanapush has lost his entire family to the plague of “consumption” that has more than decimated the reservation. Addressing his adopted granddaughter, whom he has named after his dead child Lulu, he mournfully boasts of his past, which is also the past of his people:
I guided the last buffalo hunt. I saw the last bear shot. I trapped the last beaver with a pelt of more than two years’ growth. I spoke aloud the words of the government treaty, and refused to sign the settlement papers that would take away our woods and lake. I axed the last birch that was older than I, and I saved the last Pillager.
Fleur, the one you will not call mother.
Fleur Pillager, a wild, unpredictable, often raging young woman with witchlike powers inherited from her lost ancestors, forms the turbulent center of both narrators’ stories. It is Fleur, living in a remote cabin by a lake in the heart of the forest, who tries to stave off the encroachments of the white man’s “civilization.”
The second narrator is Pauline, a nearly white, skinny, half-mad girl, whose sexual frustration and religious hysteria cause much of the mischief that befalls the hapless characters of Tracks. She, too, is obsessed with Fleur Pillager, who has been “drowned”—i.e., nearly drowned—twice in the “cold and glassy waters” of Matchimanito Lake and whose “drowning” has, in accordance with tribal superstition, brought about the death of her rescuers and witnesses. Here is a sample of Pauline’s narrative style:
Men stayed clear of Fleur Pillager after the second drowning. Even though she was good-looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself. He’s a devil, that one, love hungry with desire and maddened for the touch of young girls, the strong and daring especially, the ones like Fleur.
Our mothers warn us that we’ll think he’s handsome, for he appears with green eyes, copper skin, a mouth tender as a child’s. But if you fall into his arms, he sprouts horns, fangs, claws, fins. His feet are joined as one and his skin, brass scales, rings to the touch…. He holds you under. Then he takes the body of a lion, a fat brown worm, or a familiar man. He’s made of gold. He’s made of beach moss. He’s a thing of dry foam, a thing of death by drowning, the death a Chippewa cannot survive.
Unless you are Fleur Pillager.
Haunting Pauline and fueling her madness is the fact that she witnessed the rape of Fleur by three white men in Argus—men whom Pauline thinks she may have subsequently killed by locking them in a refrigerated meat locker during a roaring tornado. Obsessed with Fleur and sexually drawn to Fleur’s virile young mate, Eli Kashpaw, the ugly Pauline vicariously makes love with Eli by arranging, through the use of an old Indian spell, for his seduction by a teenaged girl—a seduction that Pauline avidly watches.
Although she believes in, and uses, the ancient tribal magic, Pauline is also a fervent Catholic who lives at the local convent and tends the sick and dying on the reservation. Anguished by her sinfulness, she is given to extreme mortifications of the flesh that would win merit for one of the more masochistic saints of the late Middle Ages. To remind herself of Christ’s imprisonment, she wears her shoes on the wrong feet, thereby provoking the cynical old Nanapush to say, “God is turning this woman into a duck.” She restricts her visits to the outhouse to dawn and dusk—a practice that once again draws Nanapush’s ribald humor into play. She invents new penances:
At night, I did not allow myself to toss or turn for comfort, but only to sleep on my back, arms crossed on my breasts in the same position as the Virgin received the attentions of our Lord…. I put burrs in the armpits of my dress and screwgrass in my stockings and nettles in my neckband. [Mother] Superior forced me to turn my shoes the right way around, but I let my toenails grow until it ached to walk again and each step reminded me of His tread on the path to Calvary.
Even plunging her hands into a boiling pot does not disqualify Pauline from becoming a novice and ultimately a nun under the name of Sister Leopolda. Readers of Love Medicine—set decades later—will recall her vivid appearance in that novel.
Rape, murder, vengeful tricks, spells, hideous starvation, bloody childbirth, weird practices both Christian and Indian—these elements of what might be called Native American Gothic occur on almost every page. Though there are moments of grotesque comedy and wry humor, especially in the Nanapush sections, the prevailing tone is rhetorically exalted and solemn, often portentous, and occasionally pretentious. The forest and the lake, haunted by the spirits of tribal ancestors, are endowed with mythic and symbolic properties, while the devastating advance of the developers and land-grabbers is attributed to the powerlessness of the old magic—personified in the indomitable Fleur Pillager—to protect the sacred places.
Power dies [Nanapush says], power goes under and gutters out, ungraspable. It is momentary, quick of flight and liable to deceive. As soon as you rely on the possession it is gone…. I was never to blame entirely when all was lost, when my desperate cures had no effect on the sufferings of those I loved. For who can blame a man waiting, the doors open, the windows open, food offered, arms stretched wide? Who can blame him if the visitor does not arrive?
I told this to Fleur…. But in her bearing, as she rose and walked away from me, I saw the barrier of her obstinate pride had kept my words safely beyond belief. In her mind she was huge, she was endless. There was no room for the failures of anyone else. At the same time, she was the funnel of our history. As the lone survivor of the Pillagers, she staggered now beneath the burden of a life she was failing to deserve….
“You will not be to blame if the land is lost,” I told her, “or if the oaks and the pines fall, the lake dries, and the lake man does not return.”
Louise Erdrich’s gift for vivid descriptive writing is everywhere in evidence, and many of the episodes are almost blinding in their hallucinated brilliance. But the novel has, I think, serious problems in addition to its rhetorical inflation. For one thing, the narration of events is kept at such a pitch that finally one wishes to stop one’s ears. Credence is exhausted. This is indeed too bad, for Tracks contains not only much information about the history and culture of the Indians that is interesting in its own right and little known to most readers but also the potential for a powerful narrative. While Louise Erdrich reveals the terrible privations endured by her characters and the heartless exploitation to which they were subjected by official policy and private greed, she allows the tragedy of the Indians to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sensational detail—giving rise to the suspicion that the author herself was determined to exploit its exotic and bizarre aspects for all they are worth. The characters—even the wise old Nanapush—are melodramatically conceived, and tainted with speciousness. Fleur, the ostensible heroine, becomes, hardly less than Pauline, the figment of a nightmare. The reader is sometimes reduced to a horrified onlooker, unable to identify with or care much about the characters.
By contrast, in Anne Tyler’s novels, sympathetic recognition of her characters comes almost too easily, even as their expected oddity holds out the promise of small surprises. Like the Rabbit novels of John Updike, her books expertly render a familiar world in which our own observations are played back to us, slightly magnified, and with an enhanced clarity. Anne Tyler seems to know all there is to know about the surfaces of contemporary middle-middle-to lower-middle-class life in America, and if she chooses not to explore the abysses, she is nonetheless able to dramatize—often memorably—the ordinary crises of domestic life, of marriage and separation, of young love, parenthood, and even death. Though her style lacks Updike’s metaphoric glitter, it has a strength and suppleness of its own. She can also be very funny.
In her recent novels—Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist—she has seemed at her best. The latter novel, particularly, is a luminous book. Beginning with the senseless murder of a twelve-year-old boy, it traces, with psychological cunning and humor, the steps of the boy’s eccentric and obsessive father as he blunders his way toward a new life. Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons, strikes me as less substantial, more susceptible to the tendencies to whimsicality and even cuteness that sometimes affect her work. It is nonetheless shrewd in its insights and touching in its tragicomic vision of familial hopes and disappointments.
Breathing Lessons begins in absurdity. A middle-aged housewife, Maggie Moran, goes to a repair shop to pick up their car so that she and her husband Ira can drive from Baltimore to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania.
She was wearing her best dress—blue and white sprigged, with cape sleeves—and crisp black pumps, on account of the funeral. The pumps were only medium-heeled but slowed her down some anyway…. Another problem was that the crotch of her panty hose had somehow slipped to about the middle of her thighs, so she had to take shortened, unnaturally level steps like a chunky little wind-up toy wheeling along the sidewalk.
As she is leaving the body shop, Maggie hears on the car radio what she takes to be the voice of Fiona, her ex-daughter-in-law, announcing on a talk show her intention to remarry—this time for security instead of love. Meaning to brake, Maggie accelerates instead and runs in front of a Pepsi truck that smashes into her left-front fender—“the only spot that had never, up till now, had the slightest thing go wrong with it.”
Such is the start of what turns out to be a very full day in the lives of the warmhearted and scatterbrained Maggie and cranky, taciturn Ira. The funeral they are driving to is that of Max, the husband of Maggie’s oldest, dearest friend, Serena. As they drive north along the highway (“The scenery grew choppy. Stretches of playgrounds and cemeteries were broken suddenly by clumps of small businesses—liquor stores, pizza parlors, dark little bars and taverns dwarfed by the giant dish antennas on their roofs”), Maggie begins a campaign to persuade Ira that on their way home they should stop off in Cartwheel, Pennsylvania, to see Fiona and their only grandchild, a girl named Leroy. Maggie has never been reconciled to the divorce between Fiona and their son, Jesse, or to being separated from her grandchild. She is convinced that Fiona and Jesse still love each other and she has schemed repeatedly to bring them together again, several times making secret, “spying” trips to Cartwheel to catch glimpses of Leroy. Unsentimental Ira, who has always been hard on his rock-musician son, regularly makes fun of her schemes. Fiona’s publicly announced intention to remarry now lends a new urgency to Maggie’s plea for a stopover in Cartwheel.
I can think of no one who captures the flavor of car travel in America today better than Anne Tyler—the attempt to pass an oil truck, disputes over directions, a stop at a roadside grocery-café (“The café lay at the rear—one long counter, with faded color photo of orange scrambled eggs and beige link sausages lining the wall behind it”), where Maggie, who loves to spill out her life’s story to strangers, engages in a heartfelt conversation with a sympathetic waitress and in a long flashback recalls an elegant old man whom she had loved in the nursing home where she now works. The couple finally arrives at the church in Deer Lick where they are informed by the widowed Serena that she has invited to the funeral all of the old friends who had attended her wedding and that they are all expected to sing the same 1950s songs that they had sung then. When Maggie and Ira are asked to sing “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” Ira balks. What follows is a comical set piece, including, after the funeral, the showing of a movie of Serena and Max’s wedding years ago, and the attempt, which is interrupted, of Maggie and Ira to have a “quickie” in Serena’s bedroom while the funeral reception is going on downstairs.
It was at this point that I felt that Anne Tyler had allowed her novel to slip into whimsy and slapstick. While the unconventional Serena, with her mixed feelings about her husband’s illness and death, is carefully drawn, the funeral itself and its aftermath are simply preposterous. I was relieved to get back onto the highway, to see things from Ira’s cooler point of view for a change, and to move on to the family drama involving Fiona, Jesse, and Leroy that occupies the final hundred and fifty pages of Breathing Lessons. We do not know until nearly the end whether Maggie’s irrepressible determination to make everything work out is doomed or not.
Maggie is presented as a meddler in other people’s lives but a lovable one. Tyler invites the reader to participate in Maggie’s schemes, to laugh at her misadventures and miscalculations, but also to admire her resiliency. And for the most part one goes along. But Maggie sometimes seems too broad in relation to the much subtler handling of the other characters—she is too awkward, too silly, to carry the burden that has been assigned to her. The sentimentality in the conception of her character becomes an irritation.
Ira, on the other hand, displays that firmness of outline and richness of specification that we associate with Anne Tyler’s most successful characters—especially her quirky men. Ira is presented as a gruff failure, frustrated in his ambitions, exasperated by his “whifflehead” wife, disappointed in his feckless son, saddened by the humorlessness of his overachieving daughter. He had wanted to be a doctor but has ended up running a framing shop which he had to take over when his father, declaring himself disabled by heart trouble, gave up the attempt to support himself and his two incapacitated daughters. Ira now supports all three of them as well as his immediate family. He makes fun of Maggie’s vagaries, plays solitaire, and maintains long silences. Yet he is shown to be capable of complex feelings of tenderness even when most irritated by his family.
He had a vivid memory of Jesse as he’d looked the night he was arrested, back when he was sixteen. He’d been picked up for public drunkenness with several of his friends—a onetime occurrence, as it turned out, but Ira had wanted to make sure of that and so, intending to be hard on him, he had insisted Maggie stay home while he went down alone to post bail. He had sat on a bench in a public waiting area and finally there came Jesse, walking doubled over between two officers. Evidently his wrists had been handcuffed behind his back and he had attempted, at some point, to step through the circle of his own arms so as to bring his hands in front of him. But he had given up or been interrupted halfway through the maneuver, and so he hobbled out lopsided, twisted like a sideshow freak with his wrists trapped between his legs. Ira had experienced the most complicated mingling of emotions at the sight: anger at his son and anger at the authorities too, for exhibiting Jesse’s humiliation, and a wild impulse to laugh and an aching, flooding sense of pity.
It is writing of this authority and delicacy that justifies the admiration accorded to Anne Tyler’s work—and redeems Breathing Lessons from the excesses of its whimsy.
November 10, 1988