Review of Stephen Graham Jones' "The Fast Red Road," from the Vaults

I’m glad to see that my comments on Stephen Graham Jones’ Ledfeather have drawn much attention on the site, and next on my reading list is his (other) new novel, The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti. (He also just told me he’s recently finished another novel. Slow down, Buddy. You’re making the rest of us look bad.) Plus, in the spirit of the customer-is-always-right, I’m posting my review of Stephen’s first novel, The Fast Red Road. It’s still one of my favorites. I claim Stephen as a protege, as he was my student years ago, although he’s such a talent that I’m sure all I did was point him in the right direction, which is what professors often do, I think. It makes us feel warm and fuzzy when our former charges do well: see my recent reference to Alita Putnam’s knockout essay in Narrative. Here goes: The following review appeared in The Houston Chronicle’s Zest Magazine, 24 June 2001, pp 20, 23.

THE FAST RED ROAD: A PLAINSONG/By Stephen Graham Jones/FC2; 326 pages; $13.95

The Real Thing

With the disarming title of “The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong,” Stephen Graham Jones’ first novel roars onto the literary landscape like a Seventies muscle car hellbent on nothing less than genius. Its subtitle echoes Kent Haruf’s critically acclaimed “Plainsong,” and both novels stake out similar high plains territory. But the comparisons end there. While Haruf offers a reserved, sober evocation of a town forty years past its heyday, Jones’ novel looses a rebel yell about a Native American culture a thousand years old and utterly of the moment. It’s a hallucinatory, beguiling ride through a world both painfully real and utterly hypnotic.

The refrain of Marty Robbins’ classic country-western hit “El Paso” functions as both motif and Rosetta stone for the convoluted and juxtaposed workings of the plot. One of the seminal events takes place at a hip hootenanny gone wrong: “There was more that Birdfinger wasn’t telling him. A lone Goliard standing squat and misshapen at the edge of the floodlights once, unspeaking the world, pulling Cline from his paranoid salesman life back in time to WWI—Willie and Waylon and the boys—letting him remember how it was before Marina died, when they were postal thieves, the hammer thumbed back every minute of every day, the ’69 Ford faster than radio. . . . There was the graven image of his dad as seen from a shelter, holding the leopard woman’s forehead to his limited-series commemorative beltbuckle, both of them framed by the trailer window, backlit by Gunsmoke” (38).

That passage introduces two motifs: the importance of names and the unriddling of songs. The names in this novel are original, quirky, and mysterious. It’s as if Thomas Pynchon’s patterns from “V.”  have finally been updated and one-upped. The principal characters are brothers Pidgin del Gato and Birdfinger. The interment of their father, Cline Stob, jump-starts the action of the story, even though Cline died some eleven years prior to the moment of his burying/mock funeral, which, for various woolly reasons, Pidgin fails to attend. Marina is their mother, and died mysteriously some years before all of the present action, but her fate ricochets through her grown sons in psychic ripples.

Yet the main characters are only half the fun. Secondary characters with shape-shifting identities and handles abound, complete with thumbnail biographies and razorblade-sharp descriptions. For instance, there’s Vanetta, a some-time love of Birdfinger’s and shamanesque Gal Friday: “Birdfinger had told her once that her red hair was why he chose her out of all the others in the first place, that it was opposite enough from his long-gone Marina that it didn’t remind him of her so much. Vanetta had just looked around and said ‘What others, Bird?’ then went on, that night, to prove to him that her hair was just dyed red, faux fox. Midafternoon he woke to her watching him. She was smoking a miles-long aftersex camel, her nails witchblack, no make-up. She laughed and said, ‘You’re a hornbrowed, unclever man, Bird,’ to which Birdfinger added he was a little long in the tooth to boot, but who was counting?” (68). There’s also the weird configurations of the Leopard Woman, and a nurse who dispenses painkillers, Anodiana. When late in the novel a character pops up named Patience Patience, you just have to love the invention.

Once you puzzle through what exactly happens at WWII (the second Willie and Waylon concert), you’ll eureka outloud, having unraveled a mystery that reads like a hybrid of Stephen Hawking’s“A Brief History of Time” and the gunslinger bios of Billy the Kid. Suffused in the strata of story is a challenging and post-eclectic philosophical stance. At one point Pidgin struggles to come to grips with a suitcase that may or may not contain a dead dog: “Pidgin sat . . . watching the suitcase for signs of life, knowing it was pointless: the dog would be neither dead nor alive until seen, realized, labeled. Until then it was in quantum limbo. That was the way things were. He’d had it drilled into his head before he was ten, by Sally, with her ergodic theory flashcards and her nicotine lectures on Schrodingerian paradox and Poincarean recurrence” (36). That’s a mouthful. But if you puzzle through the ideas and the lingo, it makes perfect, cut-to-the-quick sense.

Although this is a novel “about” Native American culture, it’s much wilder and more profane than the digestible visions of Louise Ehrdrich or Sherman Alexie. It’s more like Leslie Marmon Silko on drugs. Does it matter that Jones is Native American himself, a Blackfeet? Yes. There’s an utter credibility, a sureness to the writing, a confidence to parody Native American stereotypes in everything from “Gunsmoke” to  John Ford Westerns to porno flicks. And does it matter that Jones grew up in Lubbock, got a PhD from Florida State, and is now teaching at Texas Tech? That he’s only twenty-nine years old? Perhaps it should. It’s a book by not only a Native American, but a Native Texan, that deserves lavish praise. It’s the real thing.

April 2009 Update: Stephen now teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He’s older, too.

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