How many times have all of us longed for a life somehow more authentic than our own? How often do we, perpetual tourists, look at other cultures, other groups and other countries, and sigh, "Ah yes . . . They are the ones who truly know how to live"? At the same time, how often do we look at those members of our own culture, our own group, the ones who seem content and not uncertain, and then ask, "Who are they to be so complaisant, so smug, so narrow?"
In "Indian Affairs," North Dakota writer Larry Woiwode returns to the characters of his first novel, "What I'm Going to Do, I Think." Seven years after our first encounter, somehere in the mid-1970s, Chris and Ellen Van Eenanam are staying in the northern Michigan cabin of Ellen's domineering grandmother while Chris attempts to finish his thesis on the poet Theodore Roethke, a native of Michigan. Chris is part Blackfoot Indian.
The opening scene of the book lays out the choices. Which is Chris going to be, the tame academic or the natural man? Along the way there are plenty more questions: Will Chris be accepted by the "real" Indian, Beau, who drives a Dodge Power(!) Wagon? Will Ellen become pregnant again and stop grieving for the baby she lost seven years ago? Will the identity of a lurking prowler be discovered? Will the Indian thugs eventually beat Chris up? What will be the result of those peyote trips everyone is beginning to take? Is somebody setting fires? Will their rustic cabin finally get water? For that matter, will Ellen's grandmother kick them out?
If this sounds a bit like a soap opera, perhaps it is, but mercifully one with a leisurely pace and one which is as interested in small matters as in large. Life bumbles painfully forward, no matter how urgent or grand the questions. It's mostly only at the very end, when the answers start arriving like planes stacked over LAX, at the rate of practically one per page, that the reader begins to feel pinched by the artifice here, and wishes that things could just keep bumping onward.
Not that Woiwode is such a subtle writer in this book. He has a habit of dividing his minor characters into ambassadors for the good and bad qualities of their respective groups. The Good Indians are heroic and the Bad unregenerate. The white grocer is irredeemably dense and the white well-driller turns out to be a diamond in the rough. There are Good Women and Bad, and not many in between.
In addition, characters seem curiously preoccupied with their own identities. Do Indians sit around all day and make reference to the fact they are Indians ("Your sneaky meanness just gives Indians a bad name," says one)? Would a women's group that has been meeting for months still be seething about male chauvinists? Do cowboys only talk about what it's like to be a cowboy? Maybe, but I hope not.
It's the flashbacks, though, that make Woiwode most interesting. They distance us and refract the often oversimplified present. It is the signature of Woiwode's intelligence that none of his heroes seems able to think about anything without first running backward to a similar or contrasting situation to measure it against. Sometimes there are even flashbacks within flashbacks, so it's not inappropriate that Chris solves a topological four-color problem by thinking of Escher. We are who we were, Woiwode may be positing, and not just who we were, but who our parents were, and our parents' parents.
Given all this baggage, then, even if Chris can choose to be or not to be an Indian, perhaps it's a fair question to ask, "So what?" Chris is described, in the very first paragraph, as "an old man, part pansy." Only after performing a heroic act of his own (breaking the fall of a blazing Norwegian Elkhound trapped on the second story of a burning building) does he close the novel with Roethke's words, "I'll be an Indian." It would seem that the most interesting point is, what does that mean? And can he?
Even in his first appearance, almost 25 years ago, in "What I'm Going to Do, I Think," Chris Van Eenanam has never been the easiest person to get along with. But what might be seen in that first novel as youthful obtuseness has begun to wear. Chris, now 30, is seven years older than the slightly rancid boy of the previous novel, but with less boyish charm.
In that earlier novel however, and in many current short stories, Woiwode is strongest when he uses his meticulous prose to examine the slow, inevitable hurt of day-to-day living. In some ways, "Indian Affairs" still does much of what he does best, but grafted on to much solid writing is a plot that seems at times obligatory, possibly from some notion that "action" is what books are all about. As Woiwode well knows, that's not always the case.