Jim Loney lives a quiet life at the edge of the Blackfoot reservation in Montana. Once a star high school basketball player, his life has shrunk down to almost nothingness. He feels detached from it, detached from himself; he feels, as the protagonist of Welch's Winter in the Blood does, "as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon." Materially, things are not so bad for him: he doesn't seem to be especially hard-up or poor, and is well-liked--his old teammate Myron Pretty Weasel is constantly trying to get him to go hunting--and he has a beautiful, intelligent girlfriend, a white Texan named Rhea. And yet these things seem unable to penetrate the solitude of his spirit.
In one sense, The Death of Jim Loney is a "half-breed" story like Solar Storms or Ceremony: about a half-white, half-Indian person trying to find their place in a divided world. Rhea believes that it must be sort of nice to have two sets of ancestors: "you can be Indian one day and white the next. Whichever suits you." But Loney feels just the opposite, unable to connect to either of his lineages, not the family of his alcoholic white father, nor his absent Indian mother and the "reservation families, all living under one roof, the old ones passing down the wisdom of their years, of their family's years, of their tribe's years, and the young ones soaking up their history, their places in history, with a wisdom that went beyond age." There is a parallel to this divided life in the way that Rhea and Loney's sister Kate, a successful bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., spend the middle of the book in a cold war over who will get to take Loney away from Montana. Rhea wants to move to Seattle, Kate to take him home to D.C.; and Loney is split between two coasts (two Washingtons) even.
But Loney is unmoved; he doesn't want to go to either place. He is already in the place he feels he needs to be to figure out the nature of his life and his self; he is home, and yet these things remain hidden to him. In a sense, The Death of Jim Loney is a rejection of the "half-breed" narrative, in which resolution and healing can be found in embracing one's indigenous side. In Winter in the Blood, the narrator returns to himself by returning home and helping to dig a horse out of the mud (think I'm remembering that right), but the people who need Loney are all headed elsewhere. Being in Montana, that ancestral homeland, provides no answers:
He had been thinking of his life for a month. He had tried to think of all the little things that added up to a man sitting at a table drinking wine. But he couldn't connect the different parts of his life, or the various people who had entered it and left it. Sometimes he felt like an amnesiac searching for the one event, the one person or moment, that would bring everything back and he would see the order in his life. But without the amnesiac's clean slate, all the people and events were as hopelessly tangled as a bird's nest in his mind, and so for a month he had been sitting at his table, drinking wine, and saying to himself, "Okay, from the very moment I will start back--I will think of yesterday, last week, last year, until all my years are accounted for." But the days piled up faster than the years receded and he grew restless and despondent. But he would not concede that his life had added up to nothing more than the reality of a man sitting and drinking in a small house in the world.
I suspect there's something of a feint happening here, that The Death of Jim Loney suggests that these healing processes are not so easy. While both an earlier and a simpler book than Winter in the Blood, it seems almost like a response or refutation. We start to suspect that Loney has been sold, through cultural osmosis somewhere, a kind of lie, that knowledge of your past will make you whole. He searches for the name of the woman who took him in after his mother left and his father abandoned, but knowing it does nothing for him. He sees his father in the bar every day, but when they finally speak after decades, nothing is revealed. And in the process Loney passes up on not one but two opportunities to take control of his life and make it into something different. The result is not that Loney gets to know himself better but that he gets to know the world less, and the preordained "death" of the title--spoiler alert, a violent suicide-by-cop--is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding about his own deeds and their relationship to the law, to the world of others.