The Short Version: After Joe Coutts’ mother is attacked, he goes from being a teenager with no cares to an adult in the blink of an eye. Frustrated at the inability of the legal system (figureheaded, largely, by his father – a tribal judge), he and his friends set out to try and discover the identity of the rapist. Over the course of that long spring and summer, Joe’s life will change irrevocably several times over.
The Review: This was going to be a solidly middle-of-the-road book until the last maybe fifty pages. All of the sudden the pace picked up, like a breeze coming out of nowhere on an otherwise still day, and the book hurtled forward towards an inevitable ending that you knew was likely coming but that you had hoped somehow might be avoided nonetheless. As a result, I’ve got another fractured opinion of a book – on the one hand, it is just fine, simply fine. On the other, it raises serious philosophical/spiritual questions in such a smart way that it becomes better-than-fine (although never great). But the two hands do not quite meet, by my accounting.
I’ll start by addressing the sociological: I do not know much about life on Indian reservations here in this country. The closest I get is that I can claim Native American ancestry, on my mother’s side back four or five (I forget exactly how many) generations. So, sure, I could’ve pulled an Elizabeth Warren – but I didn’t, I wouldn’t’ve, and so here we are: National Book Award winning novel, Tournament of Books bracketed, and likely to tell me something I did not previously know about the tapestry of American ethnicities. And, I’ll admit, it did. Erdrich doesn’t talk down to the reader but instead strikes the appropriate balance of someone speaking to an educated-but-probably-not-about-this-specific-topic public: she explains some tribal matters (the legal system, certain spiritual practices, the overarching feeling regarding courtship and marriage outside of the tribe) but also leaves much of it just lightly brushed over. If you’re intrigued, you can go on and do further research – if you aren’t, this is probably enough to get you through a dinner party conversation that also maybe involves recent Important American Literature.
But (and here comes the kicker) I’m not sure that this is Important American Literature. It’s a good novel, don’t get me wrong – but it isn’t a great one. Stylistically, Erdrich has an odd sense of flow and a sometimes stilted sense of phrasing, leading a reader’s mind to wander. Any young man (or man who was once young) reading this novel will associate with Joe, for sure – biking off with his friends, stealing drinks or smokes, doing stupid things, playing practical jokes, even encountering the adult world and having to try and com to terms with it – but Erdrich says nothing necessarily new about the experience of growing up. Indeed, she doesn’t even necessarily say anything new about the experience of having to grow up because of a traumatic family event. I’m not trying to say that every novelist who plans to write such a novel should attempt to say something new – I’m not sure that there is necessarily anything new to be said, to be honest – but if you aren’t going to, you have to be content to land squarely in the middle of the spectrum.
But then there’s that last section. We get hints of it earlier – the confrontation between Sonja and Joe is full of uncomfortable fireworks and an extended philosophical exercise involving a memory of being in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated is the stuff undergrad essays are made of – but it is really after SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Joe takes things into his own hands and decides to go all vigilante that the novel fulfills its latent potential. We (not just Americans but English-speaking readers in general) have become more-okay with vigilante justice over the last twenty years – certainly in my conscious cultural lifetime, but definitely going back even further, probably to Dirty Harry and even beyond. But Erdrich makes you feel it, like Bond earning his first of two double-oh kills. That conversation in the film (Casino Royale), where he coldly dispatches the bent section chief after said chief says “Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn’t worry – the second is…” and Bond shoots him – it’s that first part, the “made you feel it”, that I’m specifically referencing here. We watch as Joe (and his friend/unintended accomplice) feels it – and as he is left to carry on the burden alone shortly thereafter. We find all of these ways, mentally, to be okay with murder: they attacked us first, they took from us first, they were threatening us, they seemed threatening, they aren’t like us and that threatens us, they aren’t like us – and, as I’ve perhaps derivatively and simplistically (not to mention pretentiously) just demonstrated, we’ve suddenly fallen down a rabbit hole of justification that (as a “millennial”) I simply can’t come to terms with.
The aforementioned Kennedy exercise in the novel comes when a character recollects being there, in Dallas, watching the parade… and how a dog had run out into the street and disrupted the earliest police motorcycles. And the question is raised: if that dog had run out later, disrupting the motorcade more directly, would JFK have still died that day? This sequence might as well have come with a flashing, buzzing neon sign that said “Book’s Overall Meaning” – it might just be my still-English-major-trained mind, but that felt like the sort of section a professor expects you to reference when you come up with your thesis. Not only that, it felt like Erdrich was doing it consciously and in all caps: HERE IS MY MEANING! LOOK, HERE, THIS IS WHAT I WANT YOU TO TAKE AWAY FROM THE BOOK AND CONSIDER!
But I don’t like that, even if I like the idea you’re trying to get me to consider (and I genuinely do, here). Even if you play that idea out so well over the course of the rest of the novel – making the reader wonder if this or that action, done differently, might’ve changed the entire course of this history. But, then, we wouldn’t have this novel, would we?
Rating: 3 out of 5. It is elevated from that straight middle 2.5 by the fact that the last section of the book is page-turning in the best sense of the term. Joe’s actions are propulsive, like a shot of adrenaline, and the repercussions/inciting events are as interesting (if not moreso) than the event itself. But the book feels, for the most part, average. It isn’t derivative, it isn’t bad. It just feels like so many other things that I’ve read or encountered – and the differences aren’t enough to make this book stand out at all. I’ll genuinely be surprised if, a week from now at my next BookClub meeting, there’s much beyond what I’ve written here that springs to mind for my discussion.