by Thomas King
In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water.
Coyote was there, but Coyote was asleep. That Coyote was asleep and that Coyote was dreaming. When that Coyote dreams, anything can happen.
I can tell you that.
I am not sure how to talk about this book. Aarti has done a much more concise job than I will; please do go read her musings on it. She makes a more enthusiastic case than I do, though I don't think I liked this book less.
There is a lot that can be said about this book. I loved it, I really did. I've owned it for years, have started trying to read it a couple of times and always enjoyed the first little bit, but for some reason it kept getting shunted. Not this time, and I read it quickly and avidly. I loved pretty much everything about it. The language, the imagery, the rhythms that read easily and lend themselves to a reading that almost has the power of an aural experience. I loved the setting. I even started to love the characters, flawed and wonderful as they were.
Let's see about some sort of summary... well, there's Lionel, and if the novel has a hero, it's probably Lionel. Lionel is a somewhat aimless, meandering character, a television salesperson just about to turn forty. He has almost negative initiative and what little inertia he started out with has long since petered out. But he's not happy. He lives in Blossom, Alberta, not far from the reservation he grew up on, but he rarely goes to visit. His sister Latisha is doing well for herself running the Dead Dog Cafe, a restaurant catering to gullible tourists. His uncle Eli lives alone in a tiny cabin in the shadow of an enormous dam -- a dam he's managed to keep from running for over ten years in an enormous, drawn-out legal battle with the company that built it. Eli is friends, or perhaps frenemies, with the owner of the dam, Clifford Sifton, who comes by every morning for coffee and a request that Eli get the hell out of his way. Lionel's cousin Charlie, formerly a television salesman at the same place where Lionel finds himself stuck, is now a bigshot lawyer... working for the company the owns the dam. And finally Lionel's sometime girlfriend Alberta, a college professor (who is also seeing Charlie) is on her way home for Lionel's birthday, wishing she could trade in both her men for a baby. All of these pieces, and several others, are about to collide at the annual Sun Dance.
This doesn't even touch on the four Indians and Coyote, whose sections were by far my favourites. Overall, the effect is less chaotic than it likely could be because somehow King manages to keep it together; but it's beautifully messy, rambunctious, uncomfortable, joyful, and absolutely hilarious.
It's a wonderful reading experience, this one, and different. Because of the rhythm, the fact that it reads very much like an oral story in many places, it's not your usual novel. There aren't so much chapters as little sections, and it jumps all over the place. It circles back on itself multiple times; a reader paying attention will catch nods back to other parts of the story, and back to other bits of Canlit, even. I love books that do this, because every time one comes across one of these little winks to the reader, I always feel like I've been given a little gift.
What struck me while reading this book is the casual, endemic, embedded racism that becomes exposed by King's lovely bright light. We have the government's role, which is almost a laughing-stock in the book; this is the insidious, systemic racism that goes largely unnoticed by those of us outside the system. It's the reason the dam was built where it was, not in any of the three recommended locations. It's the reason, ultimately, that Lionel is stuck where he is. It's the reason that Alberta's family's fancy-dance costumes are confiscated at the border when they're going to visit relatives in the States.
We have society and the media's role, exemplified in this book by Western movies and books: Indians as the bad guys, cowboys as the good guys. It's not as simplified in Green Grass, Running Water as it sounds here, but it is, in some ways, that simple.
And then there's Bill Bursum, Lionel's boss, owner of the television store. His is the casual, off-handed racism that grows out of the above two types, and it's also the most cringe-worthy. He treats Lionel terribly, though not outwardly -- well, and his other employee, too, and she's female, so one thinks maybe Bill Bursum is just generally a pretty casually racist, sexist guy. But he's also the kind of guy we all know and most of us probably wouldn't give a second thought, until we look a little bit closer. He's not a bad guy, he's just... incredibly small-minded. He's that guy who makes politically incorrect jokes and comments and expects everyone to laugh; we might wince, but we probably don't challenge him on it.
If I keep going, this review is going to be a mile long, but it's also important to note: this isn't an issues book, it's a book where the issues are present but incidental to the telling the story. I haven't even touched on the fact that this book put me in mind of Carl Hiaasen, in a good way, thanks to the humour and the way the space is so integral to the tale. And the way some characters, at least, end up where the reader feels they should. I haven't delved as much into the wonderful imagery and imagination. I haven't talked about how the setting is perfect and awe-inspiring. I haven't touched nearly as much on the women in this book as I'd like to, either. And the funny. I haven't made this book sound nearly as funny as it is. But perhaps that's for the best, because you really, really have to read this book to understand. Highly recommended reading. Fall right in and float, and trust King to take you on a stunning, convoluted, thoroughly enjoyable ride.