There’s really only two kinds of readers out there, and in that sense there’s really only two kind of books. The first kind of reader reads a book for plot, for suspense, and to be taken on a ride. The second kind of reader looks at a book the same way an art critique looks at a painting or listens to jazz; they all but ignore the importance of plot and feast on the in between treats like imagery, foreshadowing, allusions, and deeper philosophical meanderings. Writers know this all too well, and that’s why books about love and cancer and incest take up the same amount of room at chapters as books about water.
The Pale Indian, by Robert Arthur Alexie, is the first kind of book. The plot is the most exciting thing in the book, in that it’s the only thing in the book. The goings-on of the developing relationship between two native lovers in northern Alberta and southern Yukon is one both encompassing and claustrophobic. The dates they go on, the songs they sing, the sex they have (and there is a whole hell of a lot, but it’s all lovey-dovey innocent stuff that a 15 year old girl would find so cute) are all this author is interested in. The subplot—involving their crazy uncle who knows a terrible secret about them—is treated as afterthought fodder until the third act.
That’s ultimately how you determine if this book is for you. If you enjoy watching a really compatible relationship come together and then suddenly decimate through a hammer of plot (but the kind of people who would like this book are people who enjoy hammers of plot) then this is for you. If you enjoy something where the relationship doesn’t seem thrown together for convenience, where the focus isn’t entirely on how great the sex is (thus making the terrible secret later on really gross) and where there isn’t a complete lack of sub-text or deeper meaning, then move along to the companion text.
The writing itself in The Pale Indian is fairly pedestrian and flows easily, so easily in fact you can skim entire chapters and get the gist. Singular sentences are never important, as major plot advances take pages to develop and are thick enough to never be missed. It has the pace of a beach book, but the plot of something that belongs strictly in January (and not because the entire thing takes place way the hell up north). That’s not to say the writing is bad; it’s not, at all. It’s just that it’s very, very easy, and that’s either a positive or negative depending on how much of a challenge you expect. As well, the plot advances are all fairly predictable and the big horrible secret hinted just in the second chapter is way too obvious.
All of the big, horrible secrets in Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King, however, come out of nowhere and are never really fully explained. But that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing, since most of the big horrible secrets are nestled in allusion and cradled in metaphor, so nobody actually dies of Leukemia so much as they feel like it sometimes. That’s because Green Grass, Running Water is not a book about relationships and death and big secrets and shocks and swerves. It’s a book about water, and it’s definitely a book for that second type of person. The plot in GGRR is actually in the metaphor, not in the literature, and if you’re not the type to appreciate being challenged by sub text, then just go with The Pale Indian and be off with you.
The plot revolves around a half-dozen natives in southern Alberta who are all headed to a Sundance, but all have their own personal lives to deal with. All of them at the onset of the book deal with them by not dealing with anything. There’s a major communication problem happening between just about every character—missed phone calls, misinterpreted speeches, etc—and this means about fifteen things, all of which live between the lines in metaphor, sub text, and allusion. There’s a lot to unpack in GGRR, and this book makes it really fun. In between chapters dealing with real characters, there is a subplot where the narrator and Coyote—classical trickster figure in native mythology that is famous mostly for screwing things up and having a lot of fun with people’s misery—try and figure out the origins of the universe. In this they go through the creation of God, humans, animals, and the world’s mythology, and it’s all done while following four different women, who are also the four old native men that are also narrating the story above the story. It’s confusing at first, and GGRR takes several readings and study to figure out what’s really going on, but when you have scenes like the garden of Eden covered in food like fried chicken and pizza, you realize that it’s all rather sublime and a giant farce, and it’s all a great big laugh.
The constant—and hilarious—fight between classic native imagery and Christianity is very much at the forefront of every plot in the book, and if you can take it with a grain of salt it’s extremely entertaining and educational. That’s also true with the epic ending where everything falls apart but at the same time comes together; with an imagination, it all makes a hell of a lot of sense. If you’re type to drop the book and laugh when coyote casually remarks that “all this water imagery must mean something” then you’ll love this book.