BOOKS / Two Americas: leaping salmon and hot wheels
Saturday 02 April 1994
There are fistfights at school, ball games, drunken evenings and family reminiscences. In one autobiographical story, Alexei's father claims to have been the only Indian at Woodstock; his mother comments: 'Your father was always half crazy, and the other half was on medication.' The stories teem with humour, both gentle and abrasive. One character has an unpronounceable Indian name which Alexie translates as 'he who crawls silently through the grass with a small bow and one bad arrow hunting for enough deer to feed the whole tribe - we just call him James.'
In the best of the stories, 'This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona', an Indian called Victor Many Horses drives three days to collect his father's remains and bring them home to the reservation. His friend, Thomas Builds-The- Fire goes along, taking the ashes and tossing them into the Spokane Falls: 'And your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home.' Alexie has an ability to jump the prose out of this world and into another, but he keeps the style plain.
In the most serious pieces, he mixes the glories of the past with the indignities of the present, overlaid by ancestral voices laughing in the trees. Imagine Crazy Horse had the A-Bomb in 1876, Alexie muses, 'Would the urban Indians still be sprawled around the one-room apartment in the cable television reservation?' These darker moments give The Lone Ranger its depth and scope. This America is not the land of opportunity but the continent of lost potential.
Robert Olmstead's America By Land (Secker and Warburg, pounds 8.99) treats the whole country as a reservation. This road novel has echoes of Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson, but it also leans heavily on the road songs of James Taylor, The Eagles, and Paul Simon: 'Before she left for Mexico, her father said, having a daughter is like a needle in the heart.' But like country and western lyrics, Olmstead's prose overreaches in almost every paragraph by exactly one sentence; the effect is like an eager employer telling you to think what you already know.
His slangy style wraps itself round the tale of Raymond Romeo Redfield and his cousin Juliet. She has sold her baby to a childless couple in Albuquerque and she and Redfield determine to reclaim it. Redfield rides down from New York to New Mexico, finds Juliet, then her child, and heads out again, like some high plains drifter on a Harley. This is essentially modern picaresque, except the hero is as uneven and unpredictable as the roads he drives. Juliet, too, is a strange, protean creation, moody and mixed up. The best and worst of Olmstead is here, the worst in the superfluous final sentence: 'Out on the road you don't need what's left behind, unless you need it.'
America is large and familiar enough to sustain Olmstead's character-as-journey idea. But however many '66 Corvettes or snips of Bob Dylan, the novel lacks the alchemy to make it more than its parts.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If I were Prime Minister: I'd give tax cuts to the rich, keep Trident, and get my football team wrong
- 2 General Election 2015: 14-year-old boy asks Nick Clegg – 'can you kill Katie Hopkins?'
- 3 University student in court for allegedly covering housemates' food in window cleaner and spit
- 4 Ryan Gosling posts tribute to 'Ryan Gosling Won't Eat His Cereal' creator Ryan McHenry
- 5 Garland shooting: Isis claims attack on Prophet Mohamed cartoon contest in Texas as its first action on US soil
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to join show
Eurovision 2015: What date is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
Game of Thrones, season 5 episode 4, review: Sansa in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Noel Gallagher 'cannot wait' to hear Oasis-inspired One Direction album but rants about 'pointless' Tidal and Spotify
Top Gear: Paul Hollywood criticises BBC's handling of Jeremy Clarkson - 'whether he left is almost immaterial'
In defence of liberal democracy
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally