Porcupines and China Dolls
By Robert Arthur Alexie
Stoddart, 292 pages, $32.95
Fragment of a Blues
By Jason Holt
Famous Thursday Press,
124 pages, $18
Born and raised in the Northwest Territories, Robert Arthur Alexie is a member of the Tetlit Gwich'in people, and has been a negotiator for the band during native land-claims talks. His debut novel explores the personal and collective tragedy visited upon natives by the infamous Christian residential schools.
We begin with a man of 40 beside his pickup truck on a mountain highway, burning with rage and sorrow, railing at the heavens for an answer. He has loaded his gun and is pondering the act that might bring him peace. The ensuing pages launch a back-story beginning in the mists of pre-history.
The Blue People named themselves after the Blue Mountains in which they lived for centuries. They were nomadic, their lives shifting with seasonal migrations of fish and caribou. Life was not easy, but it was grappled with in dearly familiar ways. Then an alien came, named Alexander Mackenzie. Furs were traded. Missionaries arrived. Plagues scourged the People and spared the whites. The People learned to dance jigs and reels "as if they were born to them." By 1921, there was the Treaty, and a clause about teachers who would "instruct the children of the 'said Indians' in a manner deemed advisable by His Majesty's government."
The Residential School is born, and the People soon invent their own name for it: "hellhole." In the first decades, young children are stolen from their families and don't come back for 10 years. They are forbidden to speak their own tongue. They are beaten for infractions. Some are secretly abused. They return as teenage foreigners to their own culture.
By the 1960s, kids are allowed home for the summer. They're allowed to run and play outdoors. Little else has changed. On a September day in 1962, we enter the school (now "hostel") with two boys, James and Jake. For the first time in their lives, they will live without family around them, captive to strange, cold adults, a militarized sense of time and no appeal for the wrongs done them.
Flash forward to 1999. Wearing cowboy boots held together with duct tape, James enters a tavern at 6 p.m., with no plans to leave before closing time. A degree in business management has not kept him from cycles of booze-sodden nights and empty days. Around him are people who have come "to drink . . . beg, borrow, whine, cry or demand a beer, a smoke or the means from anyone and everyone. But that was normal. It was a fucking Indian bar."
James's community is chewing out its own heart, brimming with individuals whose aggression or drunken misery is the endless ripple effect of a feeling that every failure is deserved. The guilt of church and state in this book is illuminated far less by official misdeeds than by the steady gaze author Alexie directs into his characters' churning minds and defeated hearts.
The story's core dilemma involves James and others coming to terms with buried sexual abuse -- the shame and denial, and the journey toward disclosure. While Alexie is a little heavy on the tears and rage (weeping and/or screaming recurs with numbing frequency), his evocation of chronic mental anguish has a cumulative power that transcends his sentimental excess. Though the abuser is brought to justice here, the pain lives on in ever more elusive ways. Alexie offers no easy outs. True healing for the Blue People will be a long time coming. The packaging of Winnipeg poet Jason Holt's debut novel, Fragment of a Blues, doubles as a key element of its content. We're in a bland urban apartment: "No furniture warrants description." Someone can be heard in the kitchen preparing coffee for two guests, one the narrator, who describes the nameless "other" reading "a paperback, slim but not emaciated, about the right length for a novel. The cover is grey, plain, with all the associated virtues."
This genderless reader, so aloof as to seem otherworldly, is still only a few pages into the book. Before you've barely cracked the cover of this slim, grey volume, Holt makes you feel both observed and a spooky observer of yourself, a present reader and also a timeless character, only provisionally real. The effect is discombobulating, then cerebrally seductive.
Coffee is drunk, the reader's cup cooling untouched. An unspecified tension is observed between narrator and host. Surrounding objects and vistas are intrusively non-distinctive. The narrator glances out at an uninspiring fragment of skyline. "The window is a reciprocal lesion, leaking, once more, into the room."
There's a story here, but trying to sort it out conventionally is folly. We leave the apartment to join the narrator in his own, near-identical flat. Later a used book is purchased, one that appears to be the one begun in the host's apartment. Later still, a murder is committed. Holt's plot twists echo the dreamlike absurdities of David Lynch films -- not twists of incident so much as glimpses into the special logic of the subconscious.
Certain phrases, sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs recur at intervals, forcing attention to the dull and anchoring familiar, whether at home ("Lifting the kettle, there is more weight than expected, a fraction of which slides concomitant with sounds, tinny and faint, of upset liquid") or on the street ("Buildings bank sidewalk, which banks asphalt rivers where craft run with and against the current they initiate and, in most cases, maintain").
Deadpan precision and density of observation are the book's most striking qualities. Holt minutely describes both our drift through quotidian reality and the mind's independent stumbling along its own meaning-seeking paths.
Repetition itself -- 16 pages worth -- forms the novel's deliberate anti-climax. A single semantic shift in otherwise identical text rounds off (somewhat obviously) Holt's obsessive probing of the self-other dichotomy that shapes every encounter in life and fiction. The novel swallows its own tail. Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.