BOOK REVIEW / Lucky in love, with reservations: The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich: Flamingo pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
LOUISE ERDRICH has made the psychological landscape of the dispossessed triumphantly her own. Her tetralogy of novels, begun in 1984 with Love Medicine, maps the lives of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota since the early years of the century, as they are decimated by disease and drink and hang together by the tangled threads of blood ties and a shared conscience. That Erdrich makes of this material so much more than a collective guilt trip, a grim trudge through the history of a marginalised people, is testament to her powers. Never sentimental but always in sympathetic step with her characters, she takes a maligned popular genre - the family saga - and infuses ordinary lives with surreal poetry.

The Bingo Palace, the fourth of these novels, focuses on the lives of the youngest members of the tribe. Lyman Lamartine and Lipsha Morrissey are modern Americans steeped in popular culture - music, television, fast food - but each is also conscious of himself as a symbol of his people's future. Lipsha, a feckless dreamer who has inherited the powers of a shaman and uses them to win at bingo, has returned to the reservation after years away and falls in love with Shawnee Ray, a beautiful and ambitious young woman who wants to go away to college. Shawnee lives with the matriarch Zelda, who cares for Shawnee's illegitimate child and wants her to marry its father, Lyman, the tribe's acknowledged entrepreneur, who owns the bingo hall.

On one level, the novel is an intense love story - a triangle of rivalry and loyalties complicated by genealogy: 'His (Lyman's) father was my stepfather. His mother is my grandmother. His half-brother is my father,' Lipsha tells us. On another it is about the legacy of a ruptured past and the soured promise of an economic foothold in the country's future. Lipsha may have squandered his healing powers by selling them, but he still has mystical insights that he is unable to fashion into a coherent pattern. Lyman, by contrast, is 'a dark-minded schemer, a bitter and shaman-pleasant entrepreneur who skipped money from behind the ears of Uncle Sam'. He has a plan to build a magnificent bingo place on sacred land belonging to Lipsha's great-grandmother, Fleur, who has died twice but still haunts the reservation like a signpost to history. Shawnee, meanwhile, loves Lipsha, but recognises in Lyman the Mr Right of the magazines, 'backlighted, smiling, every hair in its place, date and place of birth typed in carefully'.

Athough it is told in fragments that enrich the central narrative, the novel's dominant voice belongs to Lipsha, son of the criminal Gerry Janapush, and June Morrissey, who abandoned him as a baby. Bowling along without a map, Lipsha seeks guidance wherever he can; in the Gideon bible that is a souvenir of his night of love with Shawnee; in the mysterious visitations from his dead mother; from Fleur, who he begs to give him a love medicine to win Shawnee Ray. He knows that the money he stacks up from the bingo hall is 'insulation' from hunger and poverty; but later, in a passage that reads like an atonal requiem, he comes to realise that 'our reservation is not real estate, luck fades when sold; the bingo . . . is an attraction that has no staying power, no life, no heart'.

Erdrich thickens the ambivalence of her novel with a rush of images that link the Chippewa's atavistic, spiritual bonding with the land to the technocratic allure of a thrusting future. Lipsha looks into Shawnee's eyes 'as into a beautiful and complicated new computer game whose pleasures and secrets he could not yet and might never measure'; he sees that 'whatever love there was between Shawnee and Lyman was canned love, love they ate from Zelda's shelf'. Alongside these images runs a series of subtle metaphors that give the novel its epic, haunting power: there are the threads of family ties and the coloured threads that Shawnee uses to make the garments that will lead her to independence. The overarching theme of luck both registers irony and reprises ideas of chance, religion and gambling - the other poisoned chalice handed from the white man to the Indian.

Elsewhere, Louise Erdrich's abundant, lyrical prose gives way to scenes of cinematic slapstick. On a wilderness retreat in search of spiritual solace, Lipsha is sprayed by a skunk; when his father, Gerry, inadvertently escapes from prison, he steals a stuffed toucan and ties it to the roof of the stolen car as the two are chased by police through a snowstorm. As comedy, tragedy and dream melt together, we float across the borderland of mythology and realism as each character is enshrined in a destiny that is at once uplifting and sad. In its empathy, its poetry and its sheer narrative power, The Bingo Palace confirms Erdrich as one of the greatest composers writing today.

(Photograph omitted)

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