Wednesday, October 21, 2009

He Read/She Read Review of The PowWow Highway

I originally wrote this review for the (now defunct?) He Read/She Read series by Jim Styro. Full review and site here - and I recommend Jim's review, which is far more throughtful than mine for this very good novel.

(Disclaimer: Fortunately for me, Jim Styro is not my boss. Because he would fire me. Unfortunately for Jim Styro, re-reading a book I read in college apparently triggered some of my latent deadline avoidance. Jim, I owe you beer and/or many other beverages. And this apologetic, very much not-on-time review.)

Powwow Highway is a book I loved in college. LOVED. And re-reading it, I think my LOVE has maybe turned to ~love~. BUT it's still a very worth-it novel set in a realistic, if difficult, world on the borders of my own.

Superficially, Powwow Highway is a familiar caper/road-to-redemption/endearing-cons-triumph-over-the-man story. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid...If Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid were two somewhat life-battered American Indians on a road trip to rescue a drug-dealing damsel in distress - and her kids - in a burnt-out car full of beer, porn, and marijuana. And if they spent their road trip getting high and drunk, committing larceny, pissing off some white people, and taking a number of detours - both literal and metaphysical - on the road to heroism.

The main characters are reservation Cheyennes in the 1970's, and their experiences of poverty, tragedy, history, mysticism, casual sense of oppression (and anger at same) are core to the story, but difficult for me, a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, to observe without occasional, subjective little fusspot asides, like: a) bad personal accounting! and b) random-ass-kicking! and c) drug use! while driving!! and d) child neglect!!! But it also appeals to my rebel level. And my spiritual quest level. And even my romantic level. (I'm like an onion that way...)

The book centers around Philbert, the sweet heart (and, I guess, eventually the "sweetheart") of the novel. Philbert is an overweight, methodical, traditional young Cheyenne. A little drunk. A little gullible. And Buddy, an intense, well-educated, passionate, angry Vietnam vet who is the golden boy of their tribe. Together, Philbert and Buddy take off with some "borrowed" tribal council money in Philbert's battle-scarred Buick to bail Buddy's sister Bonnie from jail and rescue her kids, Sky and Jane. (And then get themselves back to Indian land when things go, as they will in this kind of tale, crazily, chaotically awry).

Most of the book takes place on the roads which loosely, meanderingly connect Lame Deer, Montana to Santa Fe, NM. Or, at least, in the effort of transition from one place to another. As a former road-tripper, I found myself captivated by Seals' demonstration of how a destination is only one of the places a journey may take you, even as I recognize the overuse of that metaphor. But, as with powerful folklore, sometimes a strong metaphor is part of the pleasure and familiarity of the story. And stylistically the book is laid out as a series of folklore vignettes: (The Origin of the Pony, The Warriors find the Princess).

There's a moment in the book which is simultaneously gorgeous, passionate, completely spiritual, and totally vulgar: On the way to New Mexico, Philbert ends up detouring into South Dakota to a mountain which holds special religious significance to the Cheyenne. Philbert climbs the butte, gasping and marvelling at the world and struggling his way to an epiphany, and then masturbates into the dirt in a sort-of blissed-out spiritual consummation with the earth. It's a great scene, and is the site of Philbert's rebirth as a stronger, more self-confident man. (But also, you know...sperm!) But I love it for the way in which it marries the crass and physical with the sublime and esoteric, and that, more than any other scene, has stayed with me over the years. Plus Philbert is just an endearing bear of a character.

All the players find haven at the end of the trip (and occasionally along the way). And resolution, at least of a kind. It's worth the time. And although there are other, slightly more mainstream and equally brilliant Native American authors (tip hat to my secret boyfriend, Sherman Alexie), I think David Seals is a master and have always been very sad that he only has the two books (this and a semi-sequel called "Sweet Medicine") which can be easily purchased. (Wikipedia lists a few more, but I can't find them for sale anywhere).
I guess this is as good a place as any to note that this is a PROFANE book. I'd forgotten just how much. Sweet, and surprisingly touching, but maybe not meant to read aloud to your grandmother (or, since I don't know your grandmother - not to mine).