With an exacting eye for images and ear for language, novelist Eric Gansworth has constructed a rich tapestry of interwoven narratives that speak to the contemporary Native American experience, both on and off the reservation. Without ever relinquishing his primary objective as a storyteller, he has also introduced a discourse on how the symbols and traditions of Native American culture are appropriated and decontextualized in ways that often prove paradoxical for those who hope to honor and live within those traditions.
Beginning with his debut novel Indian Summers (1998), the trajectory of those narratives has grown increasingly circumspect and morally complex, suggesting a broader and more encompassing critique of the soul-crushing forces that drive contemporary American popular media culture into corrupting and desacralizing "traditional" and variant subcultures of all types. Like William Faulkner's "apocryphal" Yoknapatawpha County in northwestern Mississippi, Gansworth's fictionalized version of the Tuscarora Nation in Niagara County (where he was raised as an enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation) is the familiar landscape of memory where "the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Gansworth's new novel Extra Indians (Milkweed Editions) is perhaps his most ambitious work to date and the first of his books to employ a non-Native American protagonist to reconstruct the cautionary tale of Fred Howkowski, a young man who grew up on the reservation in the 1950s and '60s, served a traumatic tour of duty in Vietnam, and returned to briefly pursue his dreams of becoming Hollywood's first Native American matinee idol (or at least obtain a speaking part) before ending his own life under mysterious circumstances in a Los Angeles flophouse in the early 1970s.
Howkowski is a recurring figure in Gansworth's fiction, having first appeared as a kind of embodiment-turned-victim of Hollywood's stereotypes about Native Americans in a short story titled "The Ballad of Plastic Fred" that became the centerpiece of his first novel Indian Summers. In Gansworth's 2006 PEN Oakland Award-winning novel Mending Skins, Howkowski's brief and ill-fated career in Hollywood becomes one of the principal areas of scholarly study for Annie Boans, a Native America art historian who grew up on the same reservation and whose faculty colleague T.J. Howkowski is Fred Howkowski's orphaned son.
If Extra Indians is Gansworth's attempt to recount the story of a character who was already dead decades before his appearance in his fiction, he responds by telling the story obliquely and through the voice of a narrator -- Tommy Jack McMorsey -- whose sense of the present seems clouded by the ghosts of the past. A West Texas flatlands native and history teacher by training, he is so numbed by his experience of Vietnam, where he met, befriended and once saved the life of Fred Howkowski, his entire subsequent adult life as a rancher turned antiques dealer seems anticlimactic, and he makes the better part of his living as a long haul trucker, alone on the road with his memories.
When McMorsey discovers a confused and mentally unstable Japanese tourist in search of the lost ransom money from the movie Fargo at a truck stop outside Bismarck, N.D., during one his hauls, he offers the misguided young woman a lift. When she wanders away and is subsequently found dead of exposure at a Detroit Lakes, Minn., off-season resort location, he finds his 15 minutes of national notoriety, intrusive TV journalists and the ghosts of his past -- including his adopted son T.J. Howkowski and Annie Boans, whose ties to him may be much more than those of scholarly interest --rushing back on the road from Lewiston to Little Antler, Texas, to meet him.
Although Gansworth sticks to the multiple narrator approach of his earlier novels -- with both McMorsey and Annie Boans limning out paths that lead to their inevitable meeting -- in McMorsey, he has created a protagonist of whose cryptic and noncommittal speech patterns mask the tormented lyric ruminations of a natural-born storyteller in search of an audience. When confronted with a direct question, he'll respond with backstory -- not because he believes in parables, but because he wants you to acknowledge his sense of remorse.
McMorsey's interactions with his wife, Liza Jean -- particularly those passages that describe how fault lines of their marriage are crossed when a crew for "Prime Hours," reality-based network television program that specializes in unsolved mysteries comes knocking at their door to ask insinuating questions -- are narrative gems that highlight the disjunction between what is thought and what is spoken in relationship. So too are his conversations with Annie Boans, in which both parties acknowledge a possible tie between them that neither is quite ready to discuss.
No less impressive is Gansworth's ability to incorporate large chunks of narrative exposition --everything from Vietnam War flashbacks every bit as harrowing as what one might expect to find in a Tim O'Brien novel to bittersweet memories and McMorsey's romantic longing for Annie's mother, Shirley Mounter (the co-narrator of Mending Skins) -- into his lonely, deliberately paced (sometimes nearly to the point of plodding) road stories.
Most of Extra Indians is set in West Antler, Texas, and McMorsey's mountain cabin in Cascabel, N.M., both fictional locales with an authentic sense of snakebitten aridity -- with only occasional references to the reservation near Lewiston 1,700 miles away, where Gansworth's narrative thread originates. In some sense, this movement corresponds to Gansworth's maturing vision as an artist.
One of the principal themes of the novel -- namely, that knowing the whole truth of a human situation is theoretically possible, but that it comes at an enormous personal cost -- is not one that a reader would identify as specific to Native American experience. Rather, it's a perennial theme of literatures dating back in antiquity to at least the Oedipus story. This is the terrain Gansworth, a professor of English and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College, has been traversing for some time now: the perennial outsider, the "native informant," the artist who hears the dominant culture's dissonant music, and tries to dance to it.