Sunday, January 24, 2010

Review: Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

In the beginning there was nothing, just the water. That's how the book begins and how we are first introduced to one of the stories involved in this book. Part creation story, part biting satire and quirky humour, and part realistic drama. The story has three levels, the first revolving around five Blackfoots, the inhabitants of Blossom, Alberta, and the nearby reservation in Canada, and around a doctor and his assistant from Florida, USA. There is Lionel, TV salesman with an upcoming birthday and a life that seems to be going nowhere. Charlie is the hot shot lawyer who has everything except the full attention of the woman he loves. Alberta is the woman they are both persuing, but who doesn't want to be tied down by any man or marriage, although she does want a child. Latisha is Lionel's sister, a single mother of three, and the owner of the Dead Dog Cafe, a restaurant near the reservation that boasts dog meat is its daily special to unsuspecting tourists. Their uncle Eli completes the quintet, a now-retired professor who is the wayward son who came home. He is currently living in a cabin that stands in the way--and halts the progression of--a dam that threatens the Blackfoots, and Eli has found a way to tie the case up in courts, with Charlie as the opposition's lawyer. Finally we have Dr. Hovaugh & Babo, employees at a mental hospital four Old Indians have escaped in order to fix the world. These Old Indians, going by the names of Robinson Crusoe, The Lone Ranger, Ishmael, & Hawkeye, are mythically old and legendarily powerful. They are a part of this story, but also on a higher level telling it to the even higher narrator who is telling the allegorical creation story to Coyote, who also intervenes with the rest of the narrative. It is, in a word, complicated, but in another, brilliant. I highly recommend anyone who is looking for a fun, humourous read, or anyone who is looking for an intellectually stimulating story.

The most notable aspect of this novel is the way the narrative is told, on three different levels, and in a way that combines the oral tradition of the Native American peoples with the written literary tradition of Western culture. The story of the higher narrative gets told 4 times, each time a little different, but sheds more on the real story in the present day. It's cyclical and very much a part of the oral tradition & the Native American culture it is meant to reflect and contrast. The literary & allegorical sides also show up in the narratives when each Old Indian, in their turn, meets a member of Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as characters from the canonical novels they take their name from. It's a bit like Jasper Ffrode's Thursday Next series, in my opinion, and I think that fans of Ffrode's would greatly enjoy King's humour and satire of literary canon & form.

Another great asset to this book are the characters, flawed and realistic. I think all readers from all walks of life will be able to relate to at least one characteristic from anyone in this cast. Whether it be a fear that your life is going nowhere, a dissatisfaction with your situation, a marriage gone wrong or a fear of commitment, there is something there for everyone. More than that, the characters are lovable, you want them to succeed and you will find yourself choosing teams in some situations, siding with one character or another. In the literary aspect these characters help drive the narrative forward and help with King's odd disjointed style of telling the story both in the past and the present. More than that, Charlie and Lionel are great foils for one another, set in comparison as well as in competition for Alberta's heart.

I hope my literary notes did not scare anyone away from this book, because I promise you that even without knowledge of literary canon or the full Judeo-Christian tradition, without a degree in English, you will still be able to read and appreciate this novel. King is a gem of modern literature, a writer that is both comic and satirical and unequivocally brilliant. I highly recommend this book to any adult looking for a good read and a few good laughs. (Again, especially to fans of Jasper Ffrode)

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