Romeo Puyat, antihero and scourge of Louise Erdrich's new novel "LaRose," is a cursed man. Addicted to prescription drugs and anything else he can get his hands on, he lives in the shadows. Decades of ridicule and abuse run through his veins and fuel the rage that drives this story to its stunning end.
But once the scores have played out, Romeo stumbles into a moment of brief eloquence, a notable concession and measure of the affection that Erdrich holds for perhaps her most loathsome character.
"Some people don't have an alternative," Romeo manages to find the words at a graduation party for his estranged son. "No alternative to being humble."
Romeo may not be deserving of such an insight, but Erdrich often confounds expectations. Thirty-two years ago in her debut, "Love Medicine," she sent June Kashpaw into a late spring snow storm, a self-inflicted death undertaken with the grace and resolve that has long marked Erdrich's portraits of life in the fictional cities and tribal lands of rural North Dakota.
In the course of 13 novels and numerous short stories, she has laid out one of the most arresting visions of America in one of its most neglected corners, a tableaux on par with Faulkner, a place both perilous and haunted, cursed and blessed.
"LaRose" is no exception.
When Landreaux Iron goes hunting in its opening pages, he sees a deer and takes the shot. But when the deer bolts, he knows he has hit something else. Stepping closer, he sees his neighbor's 5-year-old son.
The death of Dusty Ravich sets into motion a cycle of guilt and recrimination that Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, try to staunch by giving their son, LaRose, to Dusty's parents.
"It's the old way," Landreaux says, explaining a decision that seems at first incredible and with time becomes strangely palliative.
"No," says Peter Ravich, but then he sees his wife, Nola: "her face had broken open. All the softness was flowing out. And the greed, too, a desperate grasping that leaned her windingly toward the child."
In the book's acknowledgments, Erdrich, whose background is Ojibwe and German American, credits her mother for passing on the story of "an Ojibwe family who allowed parents enduring the loss of a child to adopt their child — a contemporary act that echoes an old form of justice."
As alien as this exchange may seem, what matters most is how Erdrich charts its effect on these families. Whether she sends a long-legged Chippewa woman into a blizzard or lets grieving parents enact some ancient dispensation, she lets her worlds crack open from the start, leaving her characters to scramble and, if lucky, manage their own peace. The course is hardly assured.
Landreaux spirals into guilt, a creeping lassitude that soon blurs into passivity, resignation, a death wish to end the shame that nothing — no priest, no sweat lodge nor the cheer of his daughters — can ease. Emmaline aches with a compensatory sorrow for the loss of her son to the Ravichs, each day questioning what they have done.
Peter sublimates his rage for Dusty's death, imagining his vengeance, an ax brought down upon Landreaux's unwitting head, and Nola, desperate with grief, finds herself caught somewhere between living and dying, drawn to a green chair in the barn, the rope hanging from the rafters.
By pushing her characters to the brink, then reeling them back, Erdrich not only tests their capacity to endure but also uses the tension to question the obligations of love in a world set on breaking those obligations. As for LaRose, he is their Hail Mary, an attempt to alter fate.
"Sometimes energy of this nature, chaos, ill luck, goes out in the world and begets and begets. Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence. All Indians know that," Erdrich writes. "To stop it quickly takes great effort, which is why LaRose was sent."
Yet fate slices both ways. Either it adds up to nothing (the novel opens on the eve of the new millennium with attendant Y2K preparations), or it adds up to everything (the election of George W. Bush and the drumbeats to war).
Into this braided world, a place filled less with magical realism than magical thinking, Erdrich adds one other strand, Romeo, a sad desperate wedge driven into the heart of this drama. An outsider to these lives, Romeo makes his entrance siphoning gasoline from a parked car. He steals drugs from the homes of the recently deceased (while their families are at the funeral), and he takes a job at the hospital for more drugs and better still, the opportunity to gather information on his neighbors, especially the unsuspecting Landreaux.
Even Erdrich seems tested by Romeo with his "caved, tubercular-looking chest, scrawny arms, a vulturine head, and perpetually stoked-up eyes." Yet she doesn't abandon him and offers instead an extraordinary tale inside this novel about his childhood in an Indian boarding school and the bond he once shared and lost with Landreaux.
Her commitment to turn to the past to explain the tragedies of the present explains the complexity of her novels, the crosscutting from character to character, scene to scene, in a fugue-like design whose pattern takes time to see.
"LaRose" is no different, going back nearly seven generations to 1839 when traders took possession of an Ojibwe girl, the first LaRose, and set into motion the dissolution of these people through tuberculosis and boarding schools, reservation life and addiction.
Little wonder then that the Iron and Ravich families share a lingering fear over what Dusty's death might start. Their vulnerability is shaped by history: "Loss, dislocation, disease, addiction, and just feeling like the tattered remnants of a people with a complex history."
Yet the darkness that creeps in from the edges of this novel is never overwhelming, never starless. This is perhaps Erdrich's greatest gift, that amid the desperation there is still humor and irony. It comes from the residents in the senior center, not shy with their teasing humor. It comes from the teenage girls left to navigate around their parent's mess.
The rewards of "LaRose" lie in the quick unraveling and the slow reconstruction of these lives to a moment when animosities resolve, like shards of glass in a kaleidoscope, into clarity and understanding. While the ending may seem formulaic — a gathering of the young and old, the living and the dead — it is a benediction on the searing forces that preceded it. Told with constraint and conviction, the conclusion of "LaRose" is its own balm, a peace not easily won but won nonetheless.
"We are chased into this life," says one of the elders. "We are chased by things done to us in this life."
"That's called trauma," says another with the intonation of a Greek chorus.
The beauty and struggle then is to try and not get caught.
Harper: 384 pp., $27.99