Goodbye, Columbus

Gerald Vizenor intends in his fictions to pay due homage to Coyote, the American Indian trickster figure, through twist-and-turn narrative high jinks. He has often been successful, notably in the rollicking novel Griever: An American Monkey King in China, a comic masterwork in which a visiting Native American scholar sets a nation of a billion citizens on its ear, while Mao spins in his grave and Coyote howls. Dead Voices is more academic and nowhere as successful. Its form is taken from wanaki, an Indian card game that resembles tarot, except that its players are transformed into the characters they turn up: bears, owls, lice, and so on. The conceit is familiar enough: Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco played with novel-as-cardgame structures for years, and they barely missed the preciousness that overly intellectualized plots often degenerate into.

In Dead Voices, a professor at the University of California (like Vizenor himself) meets an urban shaman named Bagese Bear, who wanders the streets of Oakland dispensing advice and consulting with passing birds. Fascinated, the narrator asks Bagese to teach him the art of communicating with animals. Bagese takes him to her apartment, turns up the first card, and off they go down a tortuous trail that involves transparent symbolism, awful punning, literary allusion (our shaman quotes the work of Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian writer-philosopher), parodies of American Indian...

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