Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Natives are restless:
Traveling The Powwow Highway

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome back to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.


The lovely Rebekah from Waffles Waffles All Day Long was one of the very first readers here to step boldly forward and express a desire to join forces with me in presenting a book review. We picked one of her personal favorites, David Seals' The Powwow Highway, in the hope that some folks who might never had heard of this book might have their curiosity piqued.

Without any further ado, let’s see what…]


She Read:

(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).


He Read:

While known and beloved by Rebekah, The Powwow Highway was unknown to me until about a month ago. When, in the course of a few exchanged emails, it became clear to me how much more well- and widely-read my esteemed colleague was than myself, I made the quick (and smart, may I add) decision to let her pick the book we would review. On reflection, I think that having little or no expectations of an artwork (be it a book, a painting, a film or a piece of music) is quite helpful in being able to experience that work with a sort of purity, unburdened by expectations or preconceived notions. That said, let me get to my post-conceived notions.

David Seals’ novel is in many ways a modest little story that deals primarily with a 4-day road trip by Philbert Bono and Buddy Red Wing, which takes them from their hometown of Lame Deer (in southeastern Montana) to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Philbert and Buddy are on a meandering quest to bail Buddy’s sister, Bonnie, out of jail – but along the way they commune with nature (in a very special way), bond with old friends at a powwow, do battle with a dragon (in the form of a marauding snow plow) and, generally, raise havoc wherever they trod.

But Seals’ book is about much more than a road trip – because he sets his mythic tale within the unglamorous world of Native Americans in 1970s America. He shows us both the grandiose and grungy aspects of this culture and gives the reader a sense of larger-than-life adventure without losing touch with reality. In fact, the relationship between fantasy and reality, the mingling of truth and lies, is an idea which undergirds the entire story. Seals puts it this way:

There are two parts to every story: the part that is believable and the part that is not. It is impossible to determine which of the two is the truth and which of the two is a lie, for a lie is an extension of the truth and nobody knows what the hell the truth is. Perhaps it is a lie that is so exciting and preposterous that is has to be true.
But nobody really knows.
Later in the book, he introduces a chapter in the book by telling us that Philbert and Buddy have “come upon the most unbelievable episode they are to encounter on their voyage. Therefore it is the most authentic episode of the voyage.” On The Powwow Highway, you can never be too sure who to believe – but you can be sure that the characters who present themselves as trustworthy shouldn't be trusted.

It is Seals’ ability to portray his characters, even ones incidental to the major storyline, with a keen eye for detail (Buddy’s fragile ego, Philbert’s stoic sweetness, Bonnie’s steadfast shallowness) – along with his desire to provide a larger context for the tale (by opening the book with a complete history of Philbert’s car, for example; or weaving episodes from Native American history into the narrative, like the death of Crazy Horse in 1877) – which help bring the reader along on the journey. In the midst of this wild ride, Seals will frequently take a scenic detour – like the two pages which comprise Chapter 11. We makes a brief stop at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Lame Deer, where the 6 am Mass is always packed with Indians waiting to worship – the sunrise.

One of the most heartfelt passages in the book deals with the unexpected reunion of Buddy with two other Vietnam vets at the powwow in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. In the intertribal unit they fought with, Seals tells us, “they were the only three of the fifteen that enlisted together to come back.” One of the men, Jimmy Campbell, breaks down in the midst of their gathering – the war has left him with many scars, including a stutter that leaves him almost mute.

(Jimmy) couldn't finish his thought. He struggled fiercely, his face contorted and growing furiously scarlet…he started weeping pathetically. Buddy clasped him in his arms roughly.

“Shut up, goddammit, you don’t gotta say nothin’!” Buddy choked, his own tears bursting out from the nightmare they had shared together and would never escape. “Don’t say nothin’, Jimmy boy, don’t say nothin’.”

He rocked the soldier in his arms. Several kids nearby stared in wonder at the two men. The adults were all moved to thoughts of their own shame and ate buffalo stew.
But I fear that I’m making the trip sound far too serious and high-minded. This is not a book for those whose sensibilities are too delicate. It is filled with beer and drugs and sex; lawlessness, immorality and violence – and it makes all this seem not only funny – but fun! Where else can you find a writer will to devote 9 pages to the most hilarious tale ever regarding a car stuck in snow? Seals uses his punch lines to temper any tendency for the story to take flight into mythic mumbo-jumbo; he keeps it real – as in this passage when our heroes finally cross the border into New Mexico:

The border turned their thoughts to their impending task. The closer they got to their impossible goal, the closer Buddy felt to a sense of irretrievable failure that he had been fighting all his life. Perhaps he was self-destructive, he thought, summoning a psychological phrase he had learned in college. After all, success in a world that one despises is the highest form of failure.

No, analysis was foolish. Buddy was a jerk, that was all.
But it is Philbert who becomes the hero – “the fact that he knew he was a jerk…gave him hope. He knew their only chance for success was in foolishness.” Seals elaborates on this seeming contradiction at the crucial moment when Philbert announces (to the three children that help him carry it out) his plan to rescue Bonnie:

The air grew thick and ominous with Taku skanskan tawaiciyapi, to use the Lakota phrase, an untranslatable aura of unreal freedom, an Indian reality at implausible odds with the rational world of whitemen. Taku skanskan was a pure spiritual vitality that radioactivated the bejesus out of any foreign impurities. And Philbert would have driven a logical Geiger counter berserk with his illogical radioactivity…
And so this book is a unique mix of the profound and the profane, the sublime and the ridiculous. Reaching the end, some readers may wonder “What was the point of the whole journey?” I would respond – The Journey was the whole point. Some readers may feel that Philbert and Buddy are just as concerned with getting high as getting Bonnie (a point that would be difficult to argue against) – but, on The Powwow Highway, who says you can’t do both…simultaneously.


[We hope you enjoyed this edition of He Read/She Read. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including suggestions and constructive criticism.

Special thanks to Rebekah from Waffles Waffles All Day Long for sharing her thoughts on The Powwow Highway. If she can get over her deadline anxiety, maybe I can convince her to try it again sometime. Please take a minute to visit Rebekah's blog. Leave her some comment love and tell her Jim Styro sent you.

If you have a book you would like to see used as the basis of a He Read/She Read post – or if you are interested in being a guest writer here – use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

DON'T FORGET: Next week, we will have a new "first" here at He Read/She Read - book reviews with absolutely no Jim Styro content at all. (Of course, you can always stop by Speaking in CAPS if you miss me.)


Tell everyone you know that, next Wednesday, Captain Dumbass (from Us and Them) and the Middle-Aged Woman (from Unmitigated) will review Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith with all little help from Jane Austen (or is it the other way around?).

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And it always leaves plenty of room for dessert.]

10 comments:

Middle Aged Woman said...

Wow, I get to be first! I think it's safe to say that this book would never have been on my radar if not for Rebekah.I love the comparison to Butch and Sundance in R's review, as well. Very nicely done, by both of you. Worth the wait.

Mama Zen said...

Fabulous reviews! I haven't read this, and it is definitely going on my list!

Sprite's Keeper said...

Great reviews, both of you! I will be looking at my library for a copy of this one!

Captain Dumbass said...

Good reviews, I think I'll keep an eye for that one.

Jeanne said...

This is great!

Now I want to find this book and read it.

Collette said...

Sounds like something I would be interested in reading. Thank you for the great reviews.

Irish Gumbo said...

Crikey, another book to add to my Augean stable of a reading list...thank you both for those reviews!

Jim Styro said...

Thanks to everyone that has read and commented so far. Glad you found the reviews worthwhile - and hope that those of you who get around to reading the book will send us your own reviews as well. I would love to offer a summary of feedback from readers who provide their own mini-reviews as a complement to the featured reviews that are being posted here.

If this interests you, just drop me an email or click on the link under Contact Us on the main page.

And - as always - if you would like to do a featured review at He Read/She Read, please leave a comment (including how I can reach you off-blog) or send an email.

Lastly, I apologize for expanding the "Must Read" list of anyone who's already backlogged (or is that "booklogged"?).
That's just...what we do here.

Vodka Logic said...

I'm not booklogged I am bloglogged. I need to read a real book once in awhile.
thanks for the recommendations.

Bran said...

Hi, thanks for your great reviews of my book 'The Powwow Highway', and that you're sorry you can't find any of my others. Publishers get cold feet, but I've managed to get another up on Amazon on my own, 'The Libyad' and it should prove to be impossible for anybody to understand!