Thursday, 27 October 2016

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King


I feel like a number of the books I've read in the last month have been hard slogs in one way or another. Not bad books, necessarily, but heavy and difficult, and not the kind I've been eager to get back to. My reward for finishing them feels like it was this book, which was amusing, wonderful, difficult, and enjoyable from first to last.

Let's make a strong differentiation between fun and easy. This book was so much fun: amusing, rollicking, enjoyable for the historical and literary references, irreverent, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. But it was never easy, so let's not conflate the two. King may be using a light tone, but a lot of what he's talking about is serious and difficult, and sneaks up on you, perhaps because of the lightness.

And yet, they go together so seamlessly. It doesn't feel disjointed when it gets heavy - this is prose that can dance between pure amusement and wincing, pain and celebration, so seamlessly you barely notice the transition. Which, of course, can make those changes hit all the harder, because they sneak up on you, and refuse to linger, leaving you breathless as we move along.

It is so hard to capture the magic of a book like this. I'll try to tell you about the plot, but like always, it is not just what it is about, but how it is about it. (What would I do without that phrase, Roger Ebert?) So I will give it bare bones, but trust me, you want to read the flesh King puts on it.

We have four very old Indians committed to a mental institution. People can't seem to agree if they're male or female, but they can agree that they're very, very old, that the government wants them kept there, and that they wander away whenever they seem to take the fancy.Their names are references to literature or media, but often not the ones you might expect.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a Native woman and university professor, Alberta, is trying to choose between two men, neither of whom she really wants to settle down with, and having a child, which she does want. One man, Charlie, went away and became a slick lawyer - he has money, but not substance. The other, Lionel, stayed on the reserve and sells electronics at a local store - he's got substance, but is more than a little boring.

There are other characters - Lionel's bossy aunt Norma who seems to think that by saying something as a statement, she can influence what happens. Her brother Eli, who moved back to the reserve after most of a lifetime living in Toronto as a professor, taking up residence when he returned in a cabin that blocks the use of a newly-built dam. Lionel's sister, Latisha, who married a man who had his head immersed in what could be, and used to sometimes hit her when the world turned another way. Charlie's father, who had a good career as an Indian in Hollywood movies, until it was decided he needed to wear a fake nose to appear more Indian, and who couldn't walk away from the fame, but couldn't find the work.

It's a glorious combination of individuals, the present, the past, folklore, literature, with references galore, and lots of lines that made me laugh, leavened with references to historical figures who interacted with Native Americans that bring it back to sobering earth, only to fly again. The writing is fantastic, and I loved every minute of it.

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