Monday, November 12, 2012

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Green Grass, Running Water
by Thomas King
HarperCollins, 1993
431 pages

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.


Aarti said...

YESSSSSSSSS!!!!!! I have been waiting for this to post - I'm so glad you gave it another go and loved it, too! Isn't it strange how that can happen? I always wonder if I will discard a book because I can't get into it and it's really just the wrong time. Therefore, I just don't discard many books ;-)

I know what you mean about not really having any idea how to review this book - it is hard to capture in a review and impossible to do justice to it! But it's so, so good!

Unknown said...

Yeah, pretty much the only time I can discard a book is if I actually have an actively negative reaction to it the first time I try to read it. A "meh" isn't enough for me to want to drop it, and a "this is good! I want to ... ooh look, shiny!" is pretty much a guarantee that it will remain on my shelf indefinitely! So glad, because this one was totally worth the wait, too.

It's so unusual, it is hard to talk about. I know it was really popular in Canada for quite a while; lots of people at the library still read it, and people seem to know about it even if they haven't read it. I wanted to read it with one of my book clubs, but it turns out most of them have already read it... though a couple of them didn't love it so clearly they need to read it again. ;)

Ana S. said...

Like I told Aarti, I really want to reread this book. I read it with a First Nations literature class, which was really interesting, but I think the ways I've grown as a reader in the past 5 years mean I'd appreciate it more now. Excellent review, btw. This is why I'd missed your blog so much.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Ana! *blushes* It feels so good to be back, but I can't really tell if I'm actually back or just spewing out words. You and Aarti both make me feel like I'm back. :)

I'd love to hear your re-read thoughts on it. It's interesting how our perspective changes over time, and I think perhaps part of the reason I kept losing the thread with this one before is that I wasn't ready to read it in the way I am now. (Hence I'm glad I kept it around.) I think in many ways I'm a more cowardly reader than I used to be, but I think I am also more patient. And living longer does give one more background to bring to the reading experience, which I think means more connections get made.

Hmm. You've just gone and made me think seriously about how I've changed as a reader over the years, when I don't think I've given it any thought at all before now... /me drifts off to ponder