Green Grass Running Water

by Tom King, Thomas King,
431 pages,
ISBN: 000223999X

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Coyote Goes Slapstick
by Eric Mccormack

THOMAS KING is a writer of varied talents. His first novel, Medicine River (1990), was widely praised, and has since been made into a TV movie. His children`s book, A Coyote Columbus Story, was short-listed for last year`s Governor General`s Award. He`s a notable scholar - chair of Native American studies at the University of Minnesota. He also happens to be Cherokee through his father and lays claim to Greek-German connections through his mother. Among the many striking features of Green Grass, Running Water are the complexity of its plot and the pervasive good humour. This matter of plot - so many narrative strands on the go at once will undoubtedly create problems for impatient readers. Some of these narratives are in the traditional realistic vein: the stories of five Indians (there are no "Native people" in this book) Lionel, Alberta, Eli, Latisha, and Charlie -on their individual quests for happiness in a hostile world. Interwoven with their stories, at a kind of surrealistic, mythopoeic. level, are the adventures of four elderly Indians (named, ironically, the Lone Range Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye - there`s a lot of amusing literary game-playing in this novel) who`ve escaped from a psychiatric hospital. These four, together with the omnipresent Coyote, participate in a sort of cosmogony: a reinvention of the creation myth that mingles Genesis and Indian tradition. The narratives of the five realistic characters and of the four old men wind in and out of the plot, merging at times, their stories illuminating each other, their themes recurring. "How many more times do we have to do this?" asks one of the characters. "Until we get it right," says another. The effect is something like that of magic realism: an insight into a world-view lost long ago by those of us whose roots are in Anglo-Saxon Europe. Certain other images (examples: disappearing cars, fringed leather jackets, John Wayne-style western movies) likewise recur in a variety of permutations, as if in a baroque fantasy. Indeed, the adventure of reading this novel (for it is an adventure) stems in large part from the reader`s fascination at how King will pull the whole thing off technically. This is not at all to say we`re indifferent to his imaginary characters and how they`ll fare in the end. The characters are well aware of the complexities of it alt. At one point the Lone Ranger is talking to Ishmael: "Everybody makes mistakes," he says. "Best not to make them with stories," Ishmael replies. Their creator doesn`t let his characters down; but readers must be patient with him, for this isn`t a book driven by plot in the conventional sense. Even so, the transition from one narrative line to another, from the real to the surreal and back again, is done with astonishing improvisatory skill. Then there`s the matter of humour. As a non-Native, I must say that King`s humour is absolutely vital for a book that deals with some heavy stuff (the tragic oppression of his people over centuries; the trivializing of that tragedy by Hollywood; the acquiescence in their "whiting" by some ambitious Indians). The quality that prevents Green Grass, Running Water from being an exercise in breast-beating or masochism, on the part of the non-Native reader, is King`s kindly humour. It makes his satiric comments (on Western religion, for example, and its irritable, egotistical god) not only palatable, but persuasive. The banter of the four old men, the slapstick of Coyote (not at all the eerie symbol of Sheila Watson`s The Double Hook) also help dissipate any suggestion of diatribe. Green Grass, Running Water is wonderfully well written, and it highlights one transcendent aspect of human culture: the pervasiveness of storytelling. "There are no truths," says one of the characters, "only stories." All politics aside, those who love ingenuity in storytelling will revel in this book and in Thomas King`s mastery of a difficult art.

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