Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich

He knew from sitting in the still eye of chance that fate was not random.  Chance was full of runs and soft noise, pardons and betrayals and double-backs.  Chance was patterns of a stranger complexity than we could name, but predictable.  There was no such thing as a complete lack of order, only a design so vast it seemed unrepetitive up close, that is, until you sat doing nothing for so long that your brain ached and, one day, just maybe, you caught a wider glimpse.

What does a Native American fiction look like?  Louise Erdrich's terrific The Bingo Palace answers that question with a lot of what seem like cliches: first, the Indian casino, here a bingo parlor where the protagonist, Lipsha Morrissey, works when he returns to his reservation town and rides an incredible streak of luck.  Second, there's a lot of mysticism, including dreamcatchers and a spirit animal in a vision--a skunk telling Lipsha, who's scheming to sell a plot of land where his grandmother lives to casino interests, this ain't real estate.  Oh yeah, that's the third thing: the importance of land, a theme imported from Erdrich's Tracks.

But those things aren't mere cliches; the idea of the Native American being close to the land is the cultural reward given to her for the wholescale theft of Native lands and the bottling-up of her people in reservations on little islands of land.  The spirit-skunk reminds Lipsha that Native land is important because it's what they've managed to hold on to, despite all odds, through centuries.  And the mysticism is not so different from the magical realism of Latin American writers (though more palatable for me personally), yet it imbues the old stale canards about Native Americans with new vitality and specificity.

When Lipsha returns home, he falls in love with an old acquaintance, Shawnee Ray.  Unfortunately for him, Shawnee Ray is living with Lipsha's uncle Lyman, the proprietor of the Bingo Palace, though she, too, feels a surprising attraction to the vagabond Lipsha.  He makes his money riding that luck-streak at the bingo parlor, and his luck is part of the same force that drives him and Shawnee together, despite the unlikely odds:

Fateful coincidence.  Things happen you can't deny.  Good advice speaks from graves and love hints from the hearts of trees.  Bags of light float through open windows on a summer night.  Horses count with the knock of their hooves.  Children are born who can add up unbelievable numbers.  These things happen.

Chapters narrated by Lipsha alternate with chapters about the "luck" of various members of Lipsha's family--Shawnee, Lyman, Shawnee's toddler son, Lipsha's dead mother, his convict father, his grandmother Fleur, one of the characters from Tracks--in which the luck, good or bad, is not always clear.  But the message seems to be that the spiritual forces that animate Lipsha's luck and his love for Shawnee are ones that run deep through one's ancestors, that they are enacted by the passing of generations.  There's little elegance to this structure--the book is a mess.  (It would be easier, perhaps, if one were to read the series from beginning-to-front, starting with, I think, Love Medicine.)  And it ends weirdly, cut off in a strange moment with little closure.  But it's unified by the subtle beauty of Erdrich's prose, often hovering just past the mark of clarity, and the sharpness of her insight.

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