The Master Butcher's Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

America's story told with a poet's voice
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

An American novel is many things, but one of those things is a voyage through the family, the land, and also a plea for redemption. The novelist, short-story writer and poet Louise Erdrich has always combined these elements. She has native American blood, the catalyst for her first work in the 1980s, Love Medicine. In this new novel, Native Americans are present in the person of a homosexual circus performer called Cyprian Lazarre. He, along with his would-be lover, a woman of Polish descent called Delphine Watzka, live in North Dakota after the First World War.

A German war veteran, Fidelis Waldvogel, lives there too, with his wife, Eva, and their sons. Waldvogel is a master butcher, who sells his knives at a station in New York so that he can travel west. He opens a butcher's shop and starts a men's choral group. This group is Erdrich's metaphor for the Germany Fidelis has left behind, ravaged and smouldering from the heat of war.

Fidelis and Delphine come together through a series of interlocking strands. Stories pile upon stories and voices upon voices until they marry. Then comes the Second World War, and a possible future. But Fidelis dies, his heart giving out after years of abuse, and we experience this through his eyes: Delphine's face fades, and the music fades too.

This novel is the work of a poet. The many voices are distinct, rhythmical and poignant; Erdrich trademarks. Things are described in a strange entirety: while watching her "lover" have sex with another man, Delphine sees his white shirt, and the image is striking. Erdrich enters the mind of a sow, a pampered creature who suddenly comes to understand what all the pampering has been about: "The comfortable life she'd led so far had not prepared her for the strangeness of the situation, but her prize-winning heritage made her cunning." Smells can be so strong that they can hurl a person to the ground.

Yet there are times when the writing is so rich you long for rests - the way a symphony gives you breathing space, or a blackout works in film. The problem of the novel is that it is full of writing, full of plot, with each moment carefully and expertly done, but overwhelming. We smell, hear and taste the North Dakota of Erdrich's imagining, but somehow cannot enter her characters' souls. She seldom allows them to break free from her schema. Sometimes they read like the tableaux vivants of a personal thesis, like so much big-ticket American writing.

Hers is an example of the axiom that every American is weaving a story of multiple ancestors from different shores, each making a new narrative in and out of the great, open spaces of the West. The Master Butcher's Singing Club is the kind of story that goes a long way toward explaining the American Dream, its disasters and its triumphs. Louise Erdrich, with the combined blood of the Cree Indians and a man who fought for Germany, gives us a big novel that echoes the land of her birth.

Bonnie Greer's novel 'Kiss The War Babies Goodbye' is published next year

Comments