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Kill Hole.

In his introduction to Words In the Blood, a 1984 anthology of contemporary Native American writing, Jamake Highwater makes an observation that seems prophetic of both the form and the content of his most recent novel, Kill Hole:

Realism works very well for novels of social justice, but it cannot successfully contain the visionary view of the reality of Indians, nor can it convey the unique spirituality implicit in the Indian experience of the world. The folktale and fantasy, on the other hand, provide an immediate access to other worlds. Closer to poetry than prose, the literature of fable is concerned with dream and with structuring a world in which imagination has significant power.

Straddling the border between prose and poetry, much of this book reads more like myth than novel; dreamlike in nature, it conveys a richly symbolic story about the power of the imagination in helping an individual confront death and devastation, and portrays the horrors that occur when an entire society refuses to acknowledge that power by punishing its artists and ignoring its storytellers.

Sitko Ghost Horse, Highwater's artist-hero, learns through various real-life experiences and many extended nightmarelike sequences that the imagination is the only facet of human identity that matters, for without it there is no freedom for the self or for society.

As an adopted child, Sitko's name was changed to Seymour Miller, and life with an abusive and materialistic Anglo stepfather all but erased any vestiges of his Indian identity. But as an adolescent his imagination is fueled by his grandmother's tribal stories, impelling him to reclaim his real name and to begin a quest for his lost culture.

Art becomes his means of discovering and expressing a visionary connection between a primitive, ancestral past lived in communion with natural objects and creatures, and a terrifying present existence marked by environmental depredation, an AIDS-like plague, and an apocalyptic breakdown of human bonds within a soceity whose dominant features are a collective hatred of art and a pervasive fear of the unknown.

The setting of Kill Hole is evocative of the "wasteland" landscapes of T.S. Eliot's early poems: "The desolate wasteland groaned as the blaze lacerated the endless fields of broken rocks, dead trees, and whirling dust devils. Three large buzzards circled slowly in the burning sky. And a sickening stench of death and decay filled the air."

While Eliot prescribed a return to a revivifying Christian belief as the antidote to spiritual desiccation and ecological disaster, Highwater calls for a return to a native American (not necessarily Native American) harmony with the planet, a reminder of which he has elsewhere claimed as the unique contribution of the contemporary Indian writer: "Indians are the very core and essence of the American spirit ... because the transformation of European settlers into Americans was impelled by exactly the same sublime lands and rivers, the same environmental influences that shaped America's aboriginal peoples."

While recognizing the "Americanization" of the Indian so lamented by many, Highwater has asserted that what he calls the "Indianization" of America may well be the source of her spiritual renewal.

All of this puts a heavy burden on the Indian writer/artist, and Kill Hole seems to express in dramatic form Highwater's recognition that while Eliot was not unduly pessimistic about Western civilization on a grand scale, the individual can find redemption when he listens to his inner voice (the "words in the blood") and is faithful to the vision that arises from that collective "blood memory."

That Kill Hole is "about" all of this makes it both a fascinating book and a flawed novel. In the character of Sitko/Seymour, Highwater personifies problems of cultural and family identity; he dramatizes both the sources of artistic vision and the importance of the artist's mission; he addresses the politics of artistic censorship; and he wrestles with problems of human love.

These hefty themes loom large in a book that too often relies more on imagery and symbolism than on narrative to carry the weight of its author's vision. Despite Highwater's previously quoted remark about the poetic (i.e., nonrealistic) nature of the Indian tale, one still expects more by way of novelistic character development than one gets here, where allegorical personifications too often dominate a fictional landscape in which surrealistic presences and events confuse the reader every bit as much as they do the character.

The action takes place in a vaguely described, Kafkaesque desert village where Sitko is about to be tried for an unspecified offense. Something has happened to him. Either he has had an accident while fleeing the ravages of a plague that has taken the lives of most of his friends -- among them his lover, Eric -- or he has suffered a breakdown resulting from the psychological trauma of "the sickness."

Sitko's imprisonment brings him in contact with Delito, a brutish dwarf who rules the village, instilling in others his instinctive hatred of art and fear of strangers; and Patu, a strong and nuturing figure whose interest in Sitko enables her to overcome her fear of art and of the unknown.

Patu and Delito represent two poles in a culture that knows no harmony between raw power and nurturing compassion, as they vie for influence over the village's mysterious priests, who have ultimate say in determining who lives and who dies.

While the book's narrative present lacks compelling interest because it is too confusingly vague to allow its blend of symbol and myth to shed clear light on the problems it raises, this part of the story is really only a frame for various flashbacks, which provide the narrative with needed infusions of reality in the form of important information about Sitko's past and, accordingly, insight into his present plight.

As Sitko relates parts of that past to Patu, we learn about his father, a stereotype of the drunken Indian rodeo rider, and his mother, who denied her Indian identity altogether. Sitko recalls his grandmother, whose evocation of tribal stories provides for him -- and for the book -- a link between the American Indian past and a postmodern America that is in danger of forgetting that it has a meaningful past.

While Sitko's life is given purpose by his ability to translate these stories into pictures, we learn that his brother Reno has lacked any such creative outlet and destroyed himself in fits of rage, impotent rebellion and alcoholism. These four characters represent a paradigm of contemporary Indian responses to "Americanization."

Of all the flashback stories Sitko recounts, the most compelling and detailed concerns Eric, the intimate friend whose death from the unnamed sickness serves to drive Sitko into the exile that becomes his reality.

Eric, a half-German, half-African-American homosexual writer who finds success only after he has contracted the disease that will kill him, serves to extend the book's concerns beyond those of a Native American cultural identity.

As Sitko battles with Eric through the stages of a relationship marred by Eric's frustration and jealousy at Sitko's artistic success, and as has he nurse Eric through the inexorable stages of his disease, he wrestles with the logic of the truly desperate: "He tried to dream about another day of life. But living in a dying world was more terrible than not existing at all."

As he tells Patu, "I realized that it is more horrible to survive than it is to die -- it is worse to be a witness than it is to be a victim." The nature of this "plague" makes the death of his lover particularly hard to bear, and in Sitko's near-despair one hears the special pain of those whose loved ones die of AIDS, a pain intensified by an irrational suspicion that one might feel happy to survive what has killed one's friends: "Each time news came of the death of someone he had known, he felt both sorrow for his friend and delight that he himself had survived. And then he would feel a terrible sense of guilt. Just for staying alive."

In the end Sitko chooses not only to survive, but to triumph over the wasteland forces that would deny his freedom. This triumph is possible only because in his role as artist/storyteller he keeps alive the personal and collective memories embedded in the stories he shares with Patu.

Thus through his character Highwater fulfills the intention uttered in the book's dedicatory note: "At the close of the 20th century there are many voices that echo in our blood memory: writers, composers and poets whose creations resonate in our lives and in our imaginations. Kill Hole is imbued with traces of that blood memory. It is a tribute to the artists who have shaped both my life and my work."

In asserting the power of the artistic imagination over its political and social antagonists, Kill Hole itself stands as a lesson that these "creations" continue to be instrumental in preventing the wasteland from becoming the apocalypse.
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Author:Lee, Michael
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 28, 1993
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