Posted on Wed, Apr. 15, 2009

Stories of American Indians
told with gorgeous absurdity

The Red Convertible
By Louise Erdrich

Harper. 512 pp. $27.99


Reviewed by Helen W. Mallon

Aristotle once declared that when it comes to whacking together a piece of literature from materials both quotidian and mythic, "it is probable that many improbable things will happen." By that light, The Red Convertible, Louise Erdrich's short-story collection that spans three decades of whacking stories out of the improbable, the tragic, and the hilariously painful stuff of life, deserves a laurel wreath. Actually, several of them.

Erdrich's tradition is not entirely in the line of Aristotle. Most of her characters are American Indian, or at least partially so - but mixed, full-blooded, or white, they tend to deal in the unexpected. In many places, I laughed or gasped aloud at the gorgeous absurdity of Erdrich's plot twists. The first thing a man tells his soon-to-be lover in "Knives" is " 'You're not pretty.' " In "Father's Milk," the milk is literal. In "The Fat Man's Race," an old lady named Grandma Ignatia describes how long ago, her fiance's sisters bad-mouthed her: "They told him that I was after his money, that I wanted his land, and also that I was having sex with the devil.

"Only that last part was true."

No less of a delight is Erdrich's skill with the passage of years, pouring time through her stories like a fluid. She sums up decades in sentences that sound both casual and tightly whittled. "The Plunge of the Brave" is about an extramarital affair. In building up to it, the husband muses:

I put my nose to the wheel. I kept it there for many years. . . . What they call a lot of water under the bridge. Maybe it was rapids, a swirl that carried me so swift that I could not look to either side . . . seventeen years of married life and come-and-go children.

And then it was like the river pooled.

Maybe I took my eyes off the current too quick. Maybe the fast movement of time had made me dizzy . . . I was shocked. I remember the day it happened. I was sitting on the steps . . . when everything went still. The children stopped shouting. . . . What I saw was time passing, each minute collecting behind me before I had squeezed from it any life.

Events in the 36 stories take place over the last century or so. An early 20th-century Indian woman in "Le Mooz" relishes the prospect of tanning hide with the brains of a moose that proves as elusive, and cunning, as Moby-Dick. In "Future Home of the Living God," one of the last stories in the collection, an Indian teenager's "cutie-pie vampire" clothing style has been discovered on the Internet.

Several stories offer the pleasure of repeat visits with characters as they age and change. Erdrich incorporated "The Velvet Box" into her best-selling novel The Beet Queen. Here we meet Mary Lavelle in 1932 at age 11, taking charge of her older brother when their mother abandons them in a spectacularly original way, not to be divulged here. "We . . . cried . . . wrapped in her quilt, clutching each other. When that was done, however, I acquired a brain of ice." Mary shows up again in "Pounding the Dog," "clouds of white pepper hang[ing] in the air around her head" as she mixes sausage in the shop of the North Dakota relatives who took her in. Is it revenge or compassion that drives Mary to interpret a dream about the cousin who tormented her in childhood as a cry for help? The premonition is correct, but the cousin is far from grateful.

The characters' perplexity does not concern the porous membrane between ordinary life and the supernatural. Erdrich handles the occasional extraordinary event as matter-of-factly as the babies that start showing up "everywhere" in "Plunge of the Brave": "I lost track of which [kids] were ours and which Marie had taken in. . . . The youngsters slept between us, in the bed of our bliss, so I was crawling over them to make more of them."

Their struggle is with strangeness, with their own and one another's, with the dark comedy inherent in being mortals who lust for things that can kill us, or someone else. Wounded by life, they milk something funny, tender, or fine from its absurdities. "Here's an odd and paradoxical truth: A man's experience of happiness can later kill him" is the opening sentence of "The Butcher's Wife."

Like the violin player in "Shamengwa" whose music was "more than music," Louise Erdrich creates "powerful moments of true knowledge which we paper over with daily life." She often goes deepest when provoking laughter. Our mortal hearts need stories like these.


Helen Mallon is a local fiction writer and poet. Her Web site address is helenwmallon.com.