One of my favorite stories to teach is Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible." It's about Lyman Lamartine, a Chippewa in North Dakota, and his brother Henry who goes to the Vietnam War. Before the war, Lyman and Henry co-own a beautiful red convertible that they take on a road trip to Alaska. After the war, Henry is different, violent, darkened. Lyman tries to bring Henry back to life by banging up the convertible, pretending he's neglected it, and letting Henry fix it. For a while, it works. But then Henry admits that he knew all along it was a ruse, and like all ruses it falls apart once named, and the car follows Henry into the river after he drowns.
It's a beautiful story and good for students. It has a strong voice and a clear central image worth unpacking. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. I like to use it to talk about narrative economy: no sooner does the hitchhiker they pick up tell Lyman and Henry she's from Chicken, Alaska, than they're up there: "We got up there and never wanted to leave." 2,500 miles compressed into three words--here's an author who knows what matters. The story is as efficient as the convertible itself, and as familiar to me as the car is to Lyman.
I enjoyed seeing it with new eyes, then, in the context of Erdrich's debut collection, Love Medicine. The back of the book calls it a novel, and you could make that argument, since the handful of stories here end up dwelling on a few events from different angles. But maybe because I knew "The Red Convertible" first, I was unable to see it as anything but a collection of loosely connected stories. It begins with "The World's Greatest Fisherman," in which June Morrissey--Lyman's cousin, if I'm reading the Byzantine family tree correctly--dies in a snowbank. June's death brings together her large extended family, the Kashpaws and Lamartines all recognizable from Erdrich's other novels. I found the cast of characters as difficult to keep straight here as in all those sequels--is Gerry the charismatic criminal who keeps escaping from the pen, or is that Gordie?--but I'm amazed how completely developed the whole set was from the very beginning.
If there's something like a central narrative to these stories, it's the love triangle between Nector Kashpaw, his wife Marie, nee Lazarre, and Lulu Lamartine. As a teen, Nector is in love with Lulu, but a chance encounter with Marie, a white girl and ward of the local nunnery, hooks him for life. Yet he returns to Lulu, even as an old man, and at one point sets her house on fire by accidentally dropping a cigarette ash into a love letter he's brought around. It's the fire, not the snowbank, that the book really revolves around: we get to see it from the perspective of each of the three characters. The title story, narrated by Lipsha Morrissey, the lucky and magical narrator of The Bingo Palace, is a masterpiece of high farce in which Lipsha's attempts to return the attentions of Nector, his now senile grandfather, to Marie from Lulu. (Nector ends up choking to death on the turkey heart meant to snare him--I guess you'll have to trust me that that's funny.) I liked Lipsha's canny observation about love among the elderly:
I saw that tears were in her eyes. And that's when I saw how much grief and love she felt for him. And it gave me a real shock to the system. You see I thought love got easier over the years so it didn't hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash.
I really like Lipsha's voice--casual, a little undereducated, but humble and wise. It's part of what makes The Bingo Palace my favorite of the Erdrich novels I've read. And it really sells "Love Medicine," as well as the final story, in which Lipsha is a third party to a tense standoff between his half-brother King and Gerry the escaped criminal (not Gordie) who is angry at King for snitching on him--and by the way is Lipsha's real father. (See what I mean about the family tree?) The image of the car comes back, this time a sportscar purchased with June's life insurance. Lipsha wins the car in a card game, and drives Gerry to safety across the border, in a car suffused with the spirit of June, his mother. It all feels a little bit like one of those vaudeville routines where ten minutes of setup is required for the punchline, but it's so elegant and effective you can't help but marvel at it. And it works because Erdrich isn't hasty to get there; each story has its own cohesion and independence, but they build on each other in effect--would that final story be as effective if we hadn't the lovely character sketch of the three-hundred pound Gerry, who can disappear like a ghost when the cops come around, in the story "Scales?"
In the end the book's friability, the ease with which it can be separated into parts, ends up making it seem a little less than a novel. The multiplicity of perspectives in Tracks and The Bingo Palace seems a little bit more to a purpose. But perhaps it's more accurate to think of those novels as all part of a greater piece, like the stories here are also.