THE FUNCTION OF THE
THE DEATH OF JIM LONEY
I was writing poems exclusively up to this time, for about 7 years I think, and each individual poem would deal with an aspect of Montana prairie life, the people, the flora and fauna, the atmosphere. I wanted something bigger--something in which I could just take my time and try to pack it all in and get all of the landscape in there. . . . At first I thought of even making it a travelogue. If you were a tourist coming along Highway 2 there on the Highline, all you might want to do is get through this country as fast as possible so you'd reach either the Rocky Mountains on one side or, say, Minnesota on the other where the country gets green and lush again. I wanted to hijack a carload of those tourists and tell 'em, "O.K., here's what's here," and take 'em out on the hills to the south there and just look. . . . I just wanted them to be immersed in this country so that they would see as much as I saw, because, to me, that was a whole world right there and most people can't see that world.
In the novels Ceremony and House Made of
Dawn, as we have seen, landscape functions
almost from the outset not only as setting but also as character, and both Silko and Momaday
foreground and develop landscapes as characters rather explicitly and continuously. In his
two early novels, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney,
James Welch's portrayal
of the land and its life is on the whole neither as continuous nor as explicit as those of Silko
and Momaday; in part, this relative marginalization of the land and its life in Welch's early
novels is a calculated effect, a necessary consequence of the special narrative strategy
informing these two works. Nevertheless, as Welch acknowledges in the 1982 interview
quoted above, the creative vision informing his career as both poet and novelist is ultimately
committed, no less than Silko's or Momaday's, to revealing and celebrating the life--"the
people, the flora and fauna, the atmosphere"--of the landscape he writes about.
According to Welch in his 1982 interview with William Bevis, one of his purposes as a writer is to introduce an audience of strangers--a "carload of those tourists"--to the "Montana prairie life" that "most people can't see." And in the case of Welch's early fiction, this project involves an element of tricksterism, an element of literary ambush. The strategy involves putting the reader, and the critic, in the role of a metaphorical tourist, detached both physically and esthetically from the environment provided by the novel, moving safely along the familiar contours of interstate highway and seeing the landscape of northern Montana in the familiar way as possibly interesting scenery. More than either Momaday in House Made of Dawn or Silko in Ceremony, Welch in The Death of Jim Loney accommodates such "tourists" (readers and critics) by catering initially to their familiar ways of thinking and seeing things, specifically by foregrounding the existential model of consciousness in his design of the protagonist Jim Loney and at the same time marginalizing Indianness with respect to mainstream life and quality of vision. Having provided a familiar vehicle of prose as well as a familiar narrative perspective, Welch then proceeds to hijack such readers with the intention of transforming their vision of Indian Country from marginal scenery to a "whole world" alive in itself.
The "whole world" of Welch's project, in Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney, is the part of northern Montana roughly congruent with the joint Gros Ventre-Assiniboine Fort Belknap Reservation, which extends from the Little Rockies in the south about 50 miles to its northern boundary, the Milk River. Here along its northern edge, U.S. Route 2, locally called the Highline, cuts through the reservation, connecting the towns of Harlem (which lies, north of the river, about three miles off the northwest corner of the reservation) and Dodson (located just off the reservation's northeast corner). "If you were a tourist coming along Highway 2 there on the Highline" (Bevis, "Dialogue" 165) between Dodson and Harlem, you would be passing through this nation-within-a-nation.
One of the crucial controlling metaphors of Welch's work is the disjunction between the way life gets lived on and along the Highline and the way life takes shape to the north and (especially) the south of it-- between the character of the Highline and the land it cuts across. As a pathway or guideline for human motion, the highway is an artifice, its contours and dimensions all too dramatically imposed upon the landscape through which it passes. This is especially and clearly so between Harlem and Dodson, where the flatness and straightness of the highway stand in sharp contrast to, and in apparent disregard for, the coulees through which it cuts and the sinuous course of the Milk River, the one-way watercourse that runs, out of view, just to the north. To the east and west of the reservation, the Highline runs north of the river, but here its course seems bent on violating its own trajectory to intrude into the life of the reservation and the people living there. Like the postmodern Euroamerican mainstream way of life, it is a real presence that must be taken into account. But, as Welch hopes to show, it is not the only way through this landscape.
Highline Vision: Welch and Mainstream Consciousness
Unlike the works of Silko and Momaday, James Welch's two early novels have posed
problems for critics who would include them in some meaningful category labelled "Native
American fiction." On the one hand, Welch's Blackfeet/Gros Ventre heritage qualifies him as
one of the three or four most important novelists of the Native American Renaissance in the
views of such influential early critics as Alan Velie, Kenneth Lincoln, and Paula Gunn
On the other hand, as several equally discerning critics have already noted, the qualities of
text and texture that characterize The Death of Jim Loney (like Winter in the
much of his poetry in Riding the Earthboy 40) do not strike many non-Native
being especially "Indian." As Lincoln observes in his 1980 review of the novel, "We are told
that Jim Loney is half-Indian, but in voice and consciousness he could as well be a
Mayflower descendent in up-state New York" (183). In his discussion of the novel in James
Welch (38-45), Peter Wild quotes Lincoln's statement and adds that "critics who insist on
seeing `Indianness' where there is little of it to be found, who feel compelled to praise a novel
because of their own cultural sympathies, do a disservice to James Welch and to other Native
American writers" (45).
Critics who discount the "Indianness" of the novel frequently point out that Welch provides no overt context of Native American healing ceremonies--nothing comparable to Silko's use of Laguna purification stories or Momaday's use of Navajo Chantways--that might serve to define disease as it becomes defined in other, more overtly and ostensibly American Indian works. Without any such readily recognizable Native pretexts, alienation in Welch's work is left looking and sounding as tonally Euroamerican as anything to be found in mainstream postwar American literature; the meaninglessness of his protagonists' lives seems to derive less from their being out of harmony with some healing tradition than from their conscious recognition of the intrinsic meaninglessness of existence. In this sense, both the nameless narrator of Winter in the Blood and the third-person Jim Loney seem to many readers to figure less as culturally disinherited Indians than as, more universally, disillusioned postwar antiheroes in the vein of Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, Barth's Jake Horner, and Robbe-Grillet's Mathias--rendered antiheroic precisely because the existential universe affords no real opportunities to discover meaningful existence where none really exists, and they know it.
Such readings suggest that Welch generally succeeds in the first phase of his "hijack" scheme, which in these fictions is to offer protagonists whose consciousnesses are, at least initially, models of mainstream sensibility. But while alienation (in this case, specifically alienation from recognizably Indian cultural motifs) may be part of these protagonists' condition for much of the texts, it does not follow that Welch's creative vision concedes the necessity of alienation in the human condition. Critics who complain that Welch does not provide a Native pretext for his protagonists to identify with (as a strategy for overcoming alienation) fall into the trap of presuming that the landscape Welch does provide is just scenery rather than the "whole world" Welch himself wants to celebrate.
Addressing the usual complaint, Elaine Jahner, Kathleen Sands, and others have recently shown that Welch's early works do in fact allude, at least, to Blackfeet cultural tradition and pretexts, and they have argued that knowing these pretexts can help us to appreciate better the "Indianness" of these two protagonists.3 But even lacking such knowledge, Welch's readers can come to understand that his early protagonists eventually acquire both context and direction for their existence from the Montana landscape that Welch reproduces in these novels. Perhaps marginally in Winter in the Blood but crucially in The Death of Jim Loney, Welch's use of landscape provides both the reader and the novel's protagonist with an alternative to the existential absurdity posed by other readings of the novels. At the same time, this use of a functional landscape links Welch's creative vision with a tradition of literary realism rendered in the postwar years most clearly in fictions written by authors whose creative visions derive at least in part from Native American oral and literary traditions. Put simply, Welch's early novels, like those of Silko and Momaday, are designed to propose landscape as the source of cure for psychological and spiritual alienation; like theirs, Welch's novels confirm the efficacy of identification with the land, a premise that characterizes many Native American cultural traditions as well as many texts usually included in the category of Native American fictions. The crucial difference between Welch and other Native novelists is that in Welch's early works we are shown more clearly how identity with the land can be achieved independent of the mediation of any specific cultural tradition.
While arguably the goal of Welch's ongoing project as a novelist-- to write a novel about the life of the northern Montana landscape-- remains the same throughout his career, the means that he adopts towards that end change dramatically between the composition of Winter in the Blood and Fools Crow. In the sequence of his first three novels, Welch's creative vision steadily expands to embrace more of the scope --and the life--of this particular landscape, and in the process his narrative strategy of "hijacking" the reader gives way to the strategy of geographic and cultural immersion so characteristic of Ceremony and House Made of Dawn. In his first novel, Winter in the Blood (1974), the range of vision of his protagonist (and reader) is almost completely restricted to the straight and narrow east-west line of U.S. 2, the Highline; in his second novel, The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Welch again contrives initially to make his protagonist's spiritual vision congruent with the life to be found along U.S. 2 but then allows his vision to expand to include the dimension of the landscape unfolding from the Highline north towards Canada and south into the Little Rockies. His third novel, Fools Crow (1986), is set in time prior to the coming of the Highline, and his protagonist's Blackfeet (Pikuni) vision is shaped by a relatively vast landscape encompassing several thousand square miles--virtually all of present-day Montana east of the Rockies. Within this context, The Death of Jim Loney represents the transitional link between the creative visions informing Winter in the Blood and Fools Crow, between a fiction that privileges a Highline quality of vision and a fiction that privileges an Indian one. When read as an event taking place, The Death of Jim Loney represents an extended moment of transformation, during which Welch's creative vision (like Loney's) begins to conform to the landscape--and to the life of the land--abiding still to either side of the stagnant, paved-over way of life lived on and alongside the Highline.
Winter in the Blood: Restricted Vision of the Highline
As Peter Wild asserts, "A strong current of alienation, of the anti-hero cut off from his
surroundings, indeed runs through" (30) Welch's earliest novel, Winter in the Blood.
Arguably, the nameless protagonist/narrator of the novel suffers acutely (and perhaps
terminally) from the disease of spiritual distance precisely because his existence is confined to
the Highline and its right-of-way--because that is where his life, to use Momaday's term,
"takes place." Both his brother Mose and his father First Raise ("the only ones I really loved,
I thought, the only ones who were good to be with" ) died on or along that highway,
and his own story shows him vacillating back and forth between the bars of Malta and Havre
in much the same way that the motion of the World War II vets in Ceremony tends
restricted to the strip of bars along the highway between Budville and Grants.
Perhaps reflecting the Euroamerican presence that controls life along the Highline, the novel's predominant tone is one of absurdist existential comedy that occasionally lapses into sheer surrealism, as in several of the bar scenes, so that most of the events of the novel signify at best ambiguously, at worst not at all. Such absurdity is not restricted to Euroamerican existence, however. As even old Yellow Calf tries to explain to his grandson late in the novel, sometimes things just happen for no reason at all: some years the People starve, and then they must invent meaning to mitigate the suffering of their existence. When things get too bad, some people "distance" themselves from the people or places they come to see as causes of their disease, the way Standing Bear's followers distanced themselves from the narrator's grandmother all those years ago. Distance or no distance, though, suffering happens; in an existential universe, alienation is the human condition.
The quality of the narrator's relationship to the people around him is echoed in the quality of his relationship to place as he experiences it: in both, there is that "distance" (2), akin to the "impassable gulf" Alain Robbe-Grillet speaks of (For a New Novel 62-63) that in the existential model of the human condition separates the individual from the world without. But although the field of vision is largely restricted in this novel to the Highline, its right-of-way, and the absurd existence that transpires there, it is not entirely restricted so. Those rare moments of insight and healing experienced by the narrator occur at places set just off this absurdist-inspired turf; and, as the narrator begins to realize on his way back from his last conversation with Yellow Calf, the landscape itself is a potential milieu for bridging the gap (between generations, but also between the individual and the possibility of some healing, confirming identity) created by the Highline:
So for years the three miles must have been as close as an early morning walk down this path I was now riding. The fence hadn't been here in the beginning, nor the odor of alfalfa. But the other things, the cottonwoods and willows, the open spaces of the valley, the hills to the south, the Little Rockies, had all been here then; none had changed. (161)
This vision of a permanent, unchanging aspect of existence provides the narrator further with a means to bridge the gap between his present life and his past. As though event and place were intimately identified with one another, the narrator succeeds in collapsing the distancing effects of time by focusing his attention on this particular three-mile stretch of land and recalling a prior event rooted in this place, an event involving a felt sense of identity with First Raise and a sense of that event's unnameable but nonetheless real significance. In the process of remembering, clearly, "the time First Raise had taken me to see the old man," he recalls also the tactile, aural, and visual aspects of this prior event, and finally a sense of an alternative to stale or sterilizing existence:
. . . I had felt it then, that feeling of event. Perhaps it was the distance, those three new miles, that I felt, or perhaps I had felt something of that other distance; but the event of distance was as vivid to me as the cold canvas of First Raise's coat against my cheek. (161)
The message here, a glimmer of a way out of the epistemological absurdity that controls life
wherever people and progress have settled upon the land, is that "distance" does not
necessarily mean "separation." Up to this point in the novel, "distance" connotes
psychological separateness, attenuation of the possibility of identity. Coupled with immediate
awareness of the land, however, the term comes to imply the occasion for significant motion,
a species of event during which one comes to feel part of (rather than apart from)
lies beyond "that other distance." Welch's point here is identical to to Momaday's when he
asserts that "events take place" (The Names 142; compare also the
recovery journey in The
Way to Rainy Mountain that reappears as Tosamah's Sunday sermon in House
Dawn); in both cases, the message seems to be that one must make that three mile journey
back to the land itself if one is to recover the possibility of healing (rather than diseasing)
The narrator returns to the land even more obviously (though some would say grotesquely or parodically) in the scene with Bird and the spinster cow. Perhaps Welch wants us to see that his narrator is becoming another Earthboy--understood metaphorically either as heir to and continuor of the human life of the Earthboy 40 or as a postwar avatar of the archetypal "Earthdiver" figure, or both. If so, his immersion in the land is accompanied by the blessing of rain, signalling some end to or at least break in the metaphorical "Winter"--the season of life's paralysis--that is part of his life's essence ("in" his "blood") as it is part of the land's. On the other hand, perhaps this immersion is just more absurd dramatic irony, no more significant (and no more Indian) than old Bird's fart: despite this insight into the life of the land off the Highline (if indeed that is what this episode represents), at the end of the novel the nameless narrator is still nameless, still seeing his own life's best possibilities existing somewhere on the Highline, still imagining that "Next time I'd do it right. Buy her [Agnes, the shiftless Cree woman he once brought home] a couple of crèmes de menthe, maybe offer to marry her on the spot" (175).
Taken on its own, Winter in the Blood offers a glimmer of hope that its narrator may come to recover from the land a life for himself, but the novel ends in possibility rather than in realization: a redemptive reading goes unconfirmed. When read as part of a longer project, however, Winter in the Blood serves as a prologue to The Death of Jim Loney insofar as it prepares a reader to be ready to look (and see) beyond the Highline, to move beyond the domain of absurdity and into the domain of certainties, into a landscape that confirms the possibility of renewed life.
The Death of Jim Loney: Expanding the Vision
Welch's second novel begins where his first left off, with a protagonist living the Highline
way, susceptible to vision but detached from his environment so that he has nothing in his
field of vision worth seeing. As the title itself cries out and the state of its protagonist's
consciousness in Part 1 makes clear, The Death of Jim Loney has all the outward
a conventional contemporary American study of alienation and despair. The protagonist's
name is clue enough: as Lincoln observes in his review of the novel, "Jim Loney" is "a tease
on Welch's Christian name, a play with nicknaming him `The Lone Ranger' in a bar, a pun
(loon, lunar, lonely) on a `funny name,' his girlfriend muses . . ." (179). Further, he is cast as
a rather ordinary man who lives alone, estranged from conventional sources of identity--out
of touch with his family of origin; standing (like Mann's Tonio Kroeger) between two
cultural heritages, Euroamerican and Indian, but at home in neither; grown apart even from
the society of others who share his condition-- his contemporary "tribe" of basketball
teammates, Myron Pretty Weasel, George Yellow Eyes, and Quentin Doore, all dead or
strangers to him now. Not only does Welch estrange Loney from such conventional potential
contexts for meaningful identity, he also presents Loney as being both aware of his condition
and lacking any raison d'être, even an arbitrarily chosen one, that might
motivate him to
engage the world, to integrate his existence with anything or anybody outside himself.
For all his apparent resemblances to the prototypical existential antihero of postwar fiction, however, Loney is not simply another such figure.4 Though Welch's early depictions of Loney's consciousness are consistent with that model, Welch goes on to re-frame this specimen of twentieth-century alienation, and in so doing subjects this conventionally Euroamerican image of the alienated individual (and finally, I think, subsumes it) to a more conventionally Native view of such alienation. This view, manifest also in House Made of Dawn and Ceremony, is that alienation (like Loney's, and like twentieth-century humanity's more generally) is a curable disease, and that what Loney needs, like Abel and Tayo both, is a "good ceremony"--involvement in a process of self-rediscovery that for its efficacy depends on reconstellating his individual consciousness to bring it into closer accord with the shape of the land and, thereby, with the life-force(s) immanent there. In Ceremony the life of the land takes form for Tayo as avatars of the genetrix principle; in House Made of Dawn Abel encounters it in the forms of Snake and Eagle and the motion of running. In The Death of Jim Loney, it takes form as the "faces" Loney encounters in certain places on the land.
Also like both Tayo and Abel, Jim Loney finds himself, early in the novel, able to recall images of his past but unable to discern among them (or invent for them) any meaningful pattern. Since these images, to Loney, represent the sum of his life's moments, memory at this stage serves only to remind him how disordered and fragmented his life is these days:
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 entered 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. . . . (20-21)
Besides establishing that familiar sense of disease as disorder or koyaanisqatsi,
establishes several other important characteristics of Loney's state of mind. For one, we are
reminded that Loney is not the thoroughgoing nihilist some critics have made him out to be:
Loney assumes there is some "order in his life" and that his sickness derives not
absence of any intrinsic meaning to existence but rather from his failure or inability to see that
"order" or pattern. A closely related second point is that Loney is presented to us as a
consciousness out of tune with its surroundings, so that "all the people and events
hopelessly tangled as a bird's nest in his mind" (21; italics mine); such phrasing once
offers the possibility that his disease is a function not of life's intrinsic absurdity but rather of
his flawed vision of life, inviting us to group Loney with other recent Native protagonists
suffering from flawed vision: compare Silko's description of the "tangle" in Tayo's mind
(5-7), and compare the analogous description Momaday gives of "days and years without
meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that [Abel] could
not put together in his mind" (23). Whatever the etiology of Jim Loney's disease, its
symptoms are remarkably similar to those experienced by these other two Native American
protagonists. Finally, the passage foreshadows the shape of the healing ceremony Loney
needs to cure his disease: he must first clear a space in his mind analogous to the "amnesiac's
clean slate" and then, rather than try to select from his memories "the one event, the one
person or moment that would bring everything back" (20-21), use his own cleared vision to
put "in his mind" that one event, "taking place," to serve as the metaphorical lodestar about
which all these memories may reconstellate.
Further, though Loney's state of mind (as Welch presents it) has much in common with Tayo's in the opening pages of Ceremony and Abel's in the early parts of House Made of Dawn, in those novels the authors go on to provide figures to help diagnose and cure the disease: Silko provides Tayo with his grandmother, Ku'oosh, Betonie, and Thought Woman in her several avatars; Momaday provides Abel with Francisco, the albino, Tosamah, and Ben. But Welch provides Loney with no such helpers to testify to the efficacy of traditional healing ceremonies. Loney is thus more clearly cast in the familiar existential condition--alone, burdened with sole responsibility for discovering or inventing some identity between his own existence and the world's, and thereby the value of both.
This is not to say that no such helpers are available in the world Welch recreates for Loney to experience. As Paula Gunn Allen notes in her discussion of the novel, "seeking a vision, or `crying for pity,' is a ritual practiced widely among traditional Native Americans to this day" (Sacred Hoop 91), and on the Belknap Reservation (as Welch is surely aware) the Sundance ceremony is still an annual event. In a novel in which Welch replicates with photographic accuracy the sections of the town of Harlem and the physical landscape through which Loney moves, the absence (for much of the novel) of any overt allusion to this extant cultural context suggests that Welch has carefully omitted it, thereby contriving for Loney to be most unnaturally estranged from helpers he could as easily have been made available, given the particular social realities of the place Welch has chosen for his setting.5 As further insurance that Indian cultural tradition will play no part in Loney's recovery, Welch contrives for Loney's mother, a "full-blooded Gros Ventre" (141), to have left when he was two years old and for Loney's Indian high school chums all to have either died or distanced themselves from the protagonist. On the one hand, such social estrangement enhances Loney's qualifications as a loner, a steppenwolf in the mainstream American tradition of postwar alienates, i.e., his condition (and the quality of consciousness encoding it) is fairly representative of that of the "tourist" whom Welch wishes to hijack. In another, equally important sense, it sets Loney up as a protagonist whose cure, if indeed a cure is forthcoming, cannot be attributed directly to the healing power of cultural tradition (as some critics maintain is the case for Silko's and Momaday's protagonists) but must be attributed rather to nonsocial agency. However, Loney does indeed succeed in reestablishing meaningful identity for himself, and while the process of reestablishment (and cure) echoes in many important respects the traditional vision quest ceremony of the Northern Plains peoples, Loney derives this ceremony without any apparent cultural models to serve him as precedent or human helpers to point the way for him.6
This leads to one final and crucial point: in order to cure himself of his disease, Loney is obliged to find help somewhere, and such help is not to be found anywhere along the Highline, nor in any or all of the "little things" Loney carries with him in the form of memories. Welch provides Loney with only one reliable touchstone that he can use to re-establish "order in his life," the land itself, a constant that figures both in his memories and in his more immediate existence, standing ready in the novel to serve (both for Loney and for the reader seeing through Loney's eyes) as a source of revised vision and hence new life.
As in Winter in the Blood, the apparently meaningless existences of Welch's characters get acted out within sight of this landscape--a point Welch foregrounds by the formal device of including, early in each of the three sections of the novel, a description of the vista to the south of Harlem as seen by Loney, Rhea, or Kate. However, in each of these episodes the landscape is seen framed by a window or glass door, the observer separated both literally and metaphorically from the land in the distance. In these instances, the text functions to tell us more about the observers than about the life of the land itself, and so landscape functions primarily as a Rorschach print; as in Winter in the Blood, only by moving beyond such frames (and the existential preconceptions of identity they imply) can these characters hope to close the distance between themselves and and the land to acquire healing vision.
In Part 1, Rhea experiences a glimpse of the healing power inherent in the land off the Highline. Prior to her trip with Loney to Mission Canyon, to be sure, what she sees is often as much a function of her own preconceptions (and hence frustrated expectations) as of immediate perception. Rhea's idea of Montana derives from a college professor's description of the area around Flathead Lake, and her early vision of the landscape around her, distorted by preconception, is a vision more of what isn't there than one of what is:
And here she was. And she had been here two years. But instead of summer theaters and mountains and Glacier Park, she found herself in country that was all sky and flat land. She was in Big Sky country. With a vengeance. If it weren't for the Little Rockies and the Bearpaws, small mountains to the south of Harlem, there would be nothing to break the tan and blue horizon. . . . It wasn't the end of the world, her grandmother would have said, but you could see it from here. (11)
Two pages later, moved by her feeling of "the possibility of spirit again, an anticipation of something about to happen," Rhea visits Loney and suggests they go for a drive--not west along the Highline to Havre, as seems to be their habit on Saturdays, but rather,
"There." And she pointed to the Little Rockies. From the porch they could just see the small range.
"Do you really want to?"
"It will do us a world of good." (13)
Rhea has the right idea: one can see the "end of the world" from Harlem, and at the farthest
edge of southerly perception from this place lies the contour of the Little Rockies. It would
indeed do them "a world of good" to somehow get out of of Harlem and the solipsistic
existence that characterizes this place.
Early in Part 1, then, the vista to the south of Harlem presents itself, at least to Rhea, as an opening onto a world (or part of the world) that holds a "possibility of spirit" not to be located in Harlem or elsewhere along the Highline. This potentiality begins to take shape in the next chapter when Rhea and Loney drive into Mission Canyon for a picnic. Noticing three yellow alder leaves on the hood of the car, Rhea wonders how they could have stayed on a tree so late into November; Loney suggests "`They were waiting for us'" (14). Though Loney's remark may seem casually amusing, a wine-and-Camembert sort of thing to say, the statement also proposes that the leaves are a sign of the canyon's own vital spirit. At this place, something moves, even in November, and though neither Loney nor Rhea is yet capable of seeing what it is, both are liminally aware of it. Attempting to interpret "the dark clouds that had appeared suddenly over the east rim of the canyon," Loney says "`Something is blowing in. I don't know'" (14). To Loney, the life lived at this place is someone else's life, not his: Rhea fantasizes about building a cabin and living at this place "just like your ancestors," but Loney "didn't want . . . to be anything now but here" with Rhea. Closing his eyes to all life save Rhea's, Loney closes his eyes also to the "possibility of spirit" that is part of the life of Mission Canyon, and so Rhea alone, vaguely open to those possibilities, sees the deer, perhaps a doe ("It was a large deer, without antlers" ), that enters her field of vision at the same moment Lonely enters her sexually. Even though the gender of the deer is ambiguous, its appearance functions as a strong suggestion that there is indeed a "possibility of spirit"--in particular generative spirit--in this place. As though taking into herself some of the spirit of this place, Rhea decides to regard her vision as important, as "medicine" to be preserved for future use:
She closed her eyes because she wanted to give herself to him and she closed her eyes because she was drowsy and she wanted to keep this one secret. She kissed his neck and she felt him inside her and she thought, One day I will tell him. For that moment it was the best secret ever. (15)
The influence of this "secret" vision moves her, in the
ensuing conversation about
Loney's parentless childhood, to direct his attention to the question of his missing mother.
Loney apparently believes, and tells Rhea in Mission Canyon, that the shape of his life derives
primarily from his relationship to his father, Ike; according to Loney, Ike "just left" (15) for
twelve years, and for the past fourteen years (since Ike's return to Harlem) Loney has been
waiting for his father to recognize him. Twice during Loney's narrative Rhea questions him
directly about his mother, and both times he discounts her as a shaping spirit, saying "She
didn't exist" (16) and that "she just wasn't [a mother], that's all" (18). As statements
describing the quality of his present existence, Loney's remarks are accurate enough: what's
missing from his life is a vision of generative spirit or, lacking that, the desire to seek one out.
That his vision of what's missing in his life is restricted at this point in the novel to
of his father is a clear signal of Loney's disease: only a "mother" can provide Loney with a
place to undergo a transition into (new) life. Misdiagnosing his disease, Loney proceeds in
the following chapters of Part 1 to seek his cure in the wrong places. Even so, Rhea's
experience (of the three leaves that are there "waiting for" them; of her peaceful, if somewhat
stereotypically romanticized fantasy of the alternate human lifestyle she imagines might still
be lived there; and finally, of the medicine vision she acquires there) fixes Mission Canyon as
a site of some of that "possibility of spirit" absent in Harlem as well as in Loney's vision of his
Having settled on the idea that moving to Seattle will redeem her life and Loney's too, Rhea never shares her Mission Canyon "secret" with Loney and thereby fails to function as she might have, as a messenger for the spirit of the land--a failure perhaps ironically foreshadowed, like Loney's, in her name. As noted elsewhere, birds often function as messenger figures in many American Indian cultural traditions; this convention is so widespread that even Loney, who seems to be oblivious to the cultural traditions grounded in north-central Montana, nevertheless surmises that the bird in his recurring dream is "a messenger from my mother's people" (105). Within this context, the name "Rhea" might be taken as an ironic suggestion that while she may function in this novel as a messenger from an exotic culture, her life (like her message?) belongs somewhere south of the land and life of this place. Also, rheas (like ostriches, and unlike Loney's dream bird) are flightless. As even Rhea seems to recognize herself at the end of Chapter 13, she cannot give Loney the gift he needs of a "purpose" for living.7 To recover that possibility, Loney will have to return to this place, ready next time to see (in both the literal and figurative senses) the possibility of identity it holds in trust for him.
Harlem: East Side
The next morning, Sunday, propelled by his Mission Canyon conversation with Rhea as well
as by his subsequent early-morning vision of faces in the window (22-24), Loney makes the
first of his trips to the east end of Harlem to confront Ike. Located "past the drugstore, the
liquor store and the bank," across "the old highway and the railroad tracks, and at the end of
the street that parallelled the tracks" (27), the "little green trailer" is a fitting image both of
Ike's existence (a temporary dwelling, rootlessly positioned on the margin of the social fabric
of small town Montana) and of Loney's own Highline condition: potentially mobile, but going
nowhere.8 Within the context of
mainstream narrative conventions, which in the American
literary tradition put a high premium on the "Missing Father" motif, Loney's newly found
resolve to deal with his father is a promising plot development. Perhaps this is why many
readers find the resolution of the chapter--nobody home--so disappointing.
But Welch has provided Loney and the reader with another and, as revealed in the overall process of this novel, more promising direction to pursue: not east, but rather south, the direction Loney's attention first fixes on in this chapter: "The sun was a high disk in a white sky. Beneath it, everything--the trees, the butte to the south, the Little Rockies--looked steel gray" (27). We are told "the low brick buildings of downtown reflected nothing of the sun and nothing stirred"; the town is not where Loney is going to encounter any kind of life less "gray" or colorless than his own. Though the little trailer on the east edge of town may be painted green, and though Loney would like to believe it holds the answers he seeks, at the end of the chapter this possibility becomes "blurred into the white fields, the prairies and the yellow-gray sky" (28) that are, finally, its proper context.
This is a novel about Jim Loney's "condition," and from his perspective the life he lives has no color; he early sees the way the "tourist" of Welch's hijacking scheme sees, so that his preconceptions about his own condition are superimposed upon his perception of "the butte to the south" (Snake Butte) and the Little Rockies beyond. Still, the land to the south of Harlem is there, visible and almost beckoning even this early in the novel, and Loney's life will become a dawn song only when he moves out toward "the butte to the south, [and] the Little Rockies" (27).
The Mission Graveyard
After the failure of his attempt to call out his father, Loney can think of nobody to turn to except Rhea. In Rhea's house, "He stood and walked to the sliding doors in the south wall. A plant as tall as he glistened in the dying light. He examined one of the broad shiny leaves; then he looked at the glass but he didn't look beyond it" (29). Again he fails to see beyond the glass plane that represents the limited and limiting spiritual environment of the town. Further, when Loney does glimpse a vision of the "possibility of spirit," his vision (like Rhea's Mission Canyon glimpse) goes unshared:
In the quiet of that darkening room, Loney looked into the fire and he saw his dark bird. . . . And he wanted her to see it too, but he knew she didn't. She had her own thoughts. . . . He watched the bird getting smaller and he felt bad. He had wanted to share this moment. (30)
Thus estranged both from the physical environment and from each other, Rhea stands night
vigil while Loney, like "a hummingbird at rest" (30), acquires passively what he has failed to
acquire through active search: where "realism" fails, "surrealism" (by Highline standards)
succeeds in providing Loney with some sense of direction for his life. Unable to obtain any
help from among the living, Loney acquires help in the form of a dream, or medicine vision,
of a young mother whose son has deserted her.
This event takes place in a conventional setting for communion with the Shadow World: ". . . he dreamed of a church and it was the Catholic church down in the valley east of the agency. It sat high on a knoll beside the highway and it was pink, with four high windows on each side" (33).9 Initially, Loney senses only that he is there searching for "something" and that the something he seeks is not to be found in the church itself but rather on the "hard earth of the knoll." As Loney steps down onto the ground, the possibility of spirit he seeks becomes realized as "a sound that could have been the wind had there been any" coming from the direction of the graveyard behind the building, and as he moves toward this sound it transforms into the sound of a restless human spirit whose form stands, alone, facing the valley to the north and east. The woman who stands there "wailing, the way Indian women wail for their lost ones," seems as out of place here as Loney himself, a figure of "old-fashioned" but nevertheless youthful femininity--a characteristic ambiguity, perhaps an equivocation, of age shared by that other spirit woman, Ts'eh of Mount Taylor ("Tse-pi'na") in Silko's novel. According to the figure who appears to Loney, she mourns for her missing son; because she lacks a son to care for, and to care for her, she has become (in her words) "a mother who is no longer a mother." When Loney proposes that her son is "here," either the occupant of one of the graves at their feet or Loney himself, the figure denies either or both propositions with a single gesture: "The woman turned and made a sweeping gesture out across the dark prairies behind them. `My son is out there,' she said." Following her gesture by looking to the south, Loney looks "out across the prairies to the Little Rockies. They were high and blue beneath the snowy peaks" (34). As though to conflate the spirit before him with the place she points out to him, Loney's next question is "Who are you?" While the figure might indeed be Loney's own lost mother, Eletra, in a larger sense she is the spirit of what Eletra personifies in the novel: the nurturing, generative potential of both the abandoned tribal way of life and the neglected landscape--neglected at least by Loney. Just as the loss she articulates in this passage is the reciprocal of Loney's own, the cure for her malaise--recovery of her son--is the reciprocal of the cure for Loney's disease: she will return to being a mother when Loney becomes the son she mourns for. Further, since this is a spirit mother, it follows that she seeks the spirit of her son; hence, the cure for this mother's disease is for Loney himself to become, somehow, one with that spirit of himself, which, according to the woman in his dream, "is somewhere--out there" (34) in the vicinity of the Little Rockies.
Finally and importantly, the figure in his dream provides Loney with a sense of purpose and direction, encoded in a specific landscape. Presented with a choice between two ways--the east-west-running Highline path, a route that leads only to a graveyard, or the alternate north-south-running way, which involves becoming the spirit son this spirit mother seeks, a route that leads from this place out to the south and the Little Rockies, Loney chooses the latter: "The woman put the shawl back up over her head and started walking toward the church [i.e., south]. Loney glanced down at the grave, then after her. `I'll help you find him,' he called" (34). It remains, then, for Loney to bring this newly found purpose for living out of the realm of dream and into his present existence in the world--to make an existential connection between the life of the Shadow World and the otherwise meaningless and fruitless life he lives along the Highline.
South of Harlem: Snake Butte and Beyond
Almost immediately, Loney's commitment to the woman of his dream begins to affect his
perception of the world around him, even the environment of Harlem. As though enlivened
by his dream-borne vision of "the possibility of spirit," the heretofore "gray" (27) and
colorless life of Harlem begins to take on some of the spirit color Loney has seen attributed
only to his dream bird and to the "mask" (34) of makeup and lipstick that make the face of
the Mother Woman seem beautiful to him.
Chapter 17 opens with Loney's vision, in daylight and in the back yard adjacent to his own in Harlem, of another generative female figure. Watching her out hanging clothes for the south wind to dry, Loney recalls that this woman has "two small boys and no apparent husband" and has always struck Loney as "a pleasant woman who had lived a great deal for her years." Seeing her, we are told, calms and comforts Loney, "though he didn't know why." Perhaps his response has something to do with her seeming to have found a way to remain a mother despite having "no apparent husband" and living in Harlem, with the way her existence seems to echo Loney's own sense of separation from (of being "in" but not "of") the Highline's modus vivendi ("he had never seen her downtown or on the street, just once or twice before in her backyard and she had been hanging out clothes then" ). Her presence near him calms Loney because it also partially validates his dream vision of the Mother Woman: this young mother offers living proof that the generative principle exists, even in a spiritual graveyard like Harlem.
As in his dream of the previous night, Loney's vision of a mother figure expands to include the physical landscape to the south of Harlem. The same warm wind from the south that brings the nextdoor woman out for Loney to see brings him, a page later, a feeling of "sharpness" accompanied by a refocusing of his vision away from the woman "not twenty feet away" and from Swipesy within reach of his hand; given this new sharpness,
he grew still and his eyes cleared and he saw the rocky shadows of Snake Butte in the distance. It was flat on top and covered with grass. The top looked just like the prairies that surrounded it, but the sides were gunmetal gray and from a distance they looked smooth and sheer. They weren't, though; they were made up of jagged columns of granite and shallow caves. Loney knew this from his childhood, and he also knew about the etchings on the flat stones on top--the crude drawings of deer and fish and lizard. Snake Butte was a perfect fortress and it was assumed that Indian hunters had made the etchings many years ago. Loney used to fish the small reservoir at the base of the butte when he was a kid and he never got over the feeling that there were lives out there. Even now it was not good to think about it. (47)
In this passage, the landscape serves Loney as a medium for the events of perception and
memory--present and past--to merge into a single ongoing event, thus collapsing the
separation of the two that is symptomatic of Loney's disease. Significantly, though, Loney
terminates the event just when the suggestion that the land is alive--"there were lives out
there"--begins to emerge. Arguably, Loney's discomfort with the proposition that the land is
alive reflects the limitations of his Highline way of life: mainstream conventional thinking
accounts such notions as either fatuously romantic or downright insane, and Loney wishes to
think of himself as neither. Alternately, we could read his response as a sign of his
"Indianness" and attribute his discomfort to the particular quality of the "lives" he
Snake Butte in particular--Mother Woman may be, after all, but one of many spirits, not all
of them so nurturing or regenerative, existing "out there." Either way: as in the episode at
Mission Canyon earlier, Loney recognizes and acknowledges the "possibility of spirit" at the
edge of his vision, grounded in the landscape to the south, but chooses to disengage from it.
The chapter ends with Loney's decision to think, not about "those lives out there" nor about the possibility of moving to Seattle with Rhea, but rather about "the blue veins on the backs of his neighbor's legs." Finally, Loney abandons his farsighted vision of the landscape to the south in favor of his more familiar, alienated (and alienating) way of seeing, in which even the close-at-hand is absolutely distant. Even so, this episode once again establishes, for us and for Loney, that out there is "life," a possible alternative to the groundless, transient, and dead-ended (and to that extent meaningless) existence represented by the green mobile home and the pink Catholic church, both located to the east alongside the Highline.
As though to remind Loney one last time in Part 1 of all this, Welch causes Loney to come into contact with young Amos After Buffalo. At a particularly lonely time for Loney, on Thanksgiving Day (a reminder of his estrangement from family and clan), his mind preoccupied with the memory of Sandra (the one "woman in his life . . . he had tried hardest to love"  but whose name he cannot recall), he comes across the frozen carcass of old Swipesy. For the reader if not for Loney, the image of the dead Swipesy suggests itself as a lodestar for a whole constellation of other images of death, loss, and loneliness, as well as for the constellation of dissociative feelings (anomie, general attenuation of affective response) he has adopted to deal with such forced painful contingencies.
What Loney will do with this constellation becomes the question in this episode. Interestingly, Loney (who has come to care perhaps too much for Swipesy) and Amos (to whom Swipesy is a complete stranger) agree on one point: the only proper thing to do with the carcass is to bury it rather than unceremoniously "throw him away," but not in Harlem, or even in the Catholic graveyard. "`I'd bury him out there,' [Amos] said, pointing in the general direction of the Little Rockies" (54). The suggestion, of course, is that a proper ceremony will reframe the image of meaningless death within the context of some vision of ongoing life. As Amos reminds Loney, life continues to "take place" to the south of Harlem. Thus Amos' final question to Loney--"`Do you know where I live?'"--can be understood as yet another invitation (like the Mother Woman's gesture or the south wind's "sharpness") to Loney to turn his attention to the "general direction of the Little Rockies" to find the life he cannot in Harlem.
Reading Amos After Buffalo's question as pointing Loney's way to a specifically tribal identity rather than towards identity with the landscape that the tribe happens to inhabit is tempting. William Bevis, for instance, proposes such a reading in "Native American Novels: Homing In," and Fowler points out that traditionalists of both tribes tend to reside in this area--Gros Ventre at Hays, Assiniboine at Lodgepole. But Welch is consistent in his portrayal of Loney as incapable of primary identification with any tribe, even though he recognizes the advantages of such identification. Consider, for example, Loney's attitude towards tribal identity just prior to the killing of Pretty Weasel:
It always startled Loney that when he stepped out of his day-to-day existence he was considered an Indian. He never felt Indian. Indians were people like the Cross Guns, the Old Chiefs--Amos After Buffalo. They lived an Indian way, at least tried. When Loney thought of Indians, he thought of 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 their history, with a wisdom that went beyond age. (102)
Such family unity, a prerequisite of tribal identity, is also painfully missing from Loney's own
life; the person he has become simply precludes the possibility of authentic tribal identity.
Loney will have to find some other source of "wisdom that [goes] beyond age." The source
presented him in this novel is the land itself along with all it represents --the common ground
for both Loney's identity and the Gros Ventre/ Assiniboine tribal identities of the Cross Guns,
After Buffalos, Earthboys, and all those other characters who serve more overtly (but no
more authentically) than Loney to represent "Indian" identity in this novel.
In sum, Part 1 of The Death of Jim Loney establishes Loney's credentials as a familiar literary protagonist, his existence rendered irrelevant by his vision of disconnection from his surroundings. In Part 2, however, Loney begins to transform his relationship to the world, becoming less the detached "tourist" and more the engaged participant in the event of his existence. At the plot level, the first half of Part 2 focuses mainly on Loney as seen by his sister Kate, while the second half records his disastrous hunting trip with Pretty Weasel; at the same time and more importantly, landscape begins working to shape Loney's evolving vision when a series of re-encounters with aspects of the spirit of the land help to define Loney's fears, accounting for the distance he has imposed between himself and the world that has shaped his identity.
Loney continues to believe in Part 2 that the felt emptiness of his existence originates in the circumstances of his childhood, which he understands to be a series of abandonments by those to whom he was most emotionally attached. This seems a reasonable diagnosis of his disease, given the family history Welch creates for him. Loney tells Rhea in Part 1 that his biological mother left with no explanation when he was two years old, and a few years later his father "went out drinking one night and didn't return for twelve years" (15-16); shortly afterwards, the last member of his family of origin, Kate, left too. Even his surrogate mother, Sandra, simply vanishes.
Like the nameless narrator of Winter in the Blood, Loney's response since childhood to his felt aloneness has been to distance himself from the pain of it by avoiding the issue (unless drunk or otherwise anesthetized). Ike has been living less than a mile from Loney for the past fourteen years, but no words have passed between them; Kate writes frequently from Washington DC, but Loney doesn't reply to her letters (19). In Part 2, however, he begins to probe his old sense of abandonment and forced estrangement, apparently convinced that a clearer understanding of the people constituting his family might be the cure for his loneliness.
Kate seems a natural link to those roots, but she too has distanced herself from the potential pain associated with the question of her own ancestry--or to put the matter in more Native terms, she has come to be careless of her clan identity. Instead, she has invented for herself an image that has all the trappings of "Indianness" but none of the grounding in particular place or culture that characterize tribal identity: Welch points out that she arrives in Harlem dressed in "a bit of everything" (62), including a Navajo squash blossom necklace made by "the only woman silversmith in the Canyon de Chelly area," a beaded roach (presumably made by some Plains craftsperson), and a sheepskin jacket picked up in a "Western boutique in Phoenix"; later we learn she also prizes three paintings "by an Indian artist she had met in South Dakota" (164). As successfully Indian as Kate might seem by non-Native standards, her personally constructed Pan-Indian identity is curiously independent of any particular place or culture, and in this respect at least her character may be taken to be a parody of of detribalized Pan-Indianism, as rootless as Loney's own. Having put a distance of some twenty years and two thousand miles between herself and Harlem, she holds now to her self-made image as one who has made it in the world despite rather than because of her culture--and place--of origin. To do that, though, she has had to leave northern Montana--has gone, in fact, as far to the East to get away from it as she geographically can (in much the same way that Rhea, who comes from about as far south of this place as she geographically could have, plans to move as far west from it as she can).
Kate's history and ambition function to bring into sharper focus Loney's own unarticulated commitment to place. As we come to understand in Part 2 in the exchanges between Loney and Kate, one of the ironic givens of Loney's existential isolation is that he simply isn't willing to leave the place of his original and continuing being. For him, the possibilities of his life are contained within the field of his vision; both his vision and life have taken their shapes on and near the Fort Belknap Reservation, and that is where he wants to find, or create, the rest of his life as well.
However, his desire to re-engage his own life now, at the age of 35, puts him into direct conflict with the psychological distancing strategy he has been using to protect himself from the pain associated with his personal "story." We see this most clearly in Chapter 13 of Part 2, when on the last day of her stay Kate forces Loney to choose consciously between her dislocated way of life and a life based on claiming, and being claimed by, place.
This issue gets forced at the place called Snake Butte. In the novel as in geographical fact,
Snake Butte is located about halfway between Harlem and Mission Canyon, or (to see it
differently and probably more accurately) at the center of a field of vision that encompasses
both Harlem to the north and the Little Rockies (including Mission Canyon) to the south, the
center of a constellation in which the locus of spiritless postwar anomie and the locus of the
"possibility of spirit" are equidistant, yet both equally visible, from the locus of perspective.
In Part 1, Loney recalls this place from his childhood but recoils from thinking about it because of the "feeling that there [are] lives out there" (47). In Chapter 13 of Part 2, this vague feeling takes on more specific form when he finds himself again at Snake Butte--when the "event" of his existence is "taking place" there:
"This is the last time," Kate said again, her voice as formal and dark as the suit she was wearing. "I will never come back here. . . . I have a life of my own," Kate interrupted. "You are not a part of it anymore, by your own choosing. You have nothing left. Anything you do from now on you will do without conviction, without spirit. You reject me. You reject Rhea. You have nothing." . . . "I can't leave," he said, and he almost knew why. He thought of his earlier attempts to create a past, a background, an ancestry--something that would tell him who he was. . . . He had always admired Kate's ability to live in the present, but he had also wondered at her lack of need to understand her past. Maybe she had the right idea; maybe it was the present that mattered, only the present. But even as he thought this he saw the woman [Sandra] that Christmas eve, his hand in her hair. (88)
Implicit in these lines is Loney's felt need to understand his past; equally important by implication is that the story of his past, and by extension the validating context for the story of his present, is encoded hereabouts, and here is where he'll find it, if it's to be found anywhere. Equally telling in this passage is just how profoundly ambivalent Loney is about re-acquiring identity with this place and thereby "a past, a background, an ancestry--something that would tell him who he was":
He looked out his window. The fissured gray walls of the butte were beginning to lighten and cast shadows. He didn't like the butte. Even as a kid . . . he had felt the dim walls watching him and he didn't like it. There were faces in the walls. He had discovered them then, and he saw them now. He had never looked closely because he didn't want to recognize any of the faces, and certainly not his own. (88-89)
If we presume that Loney's Indian blood is somehow shaping his response in this passage, then his aversion can be understood as traditional aversion to looking too closely at the Shadow People. Even without such specific cultural preconceptions, though, his reluctance makes sense: those faces are "in," not "on," the walls, so that identifying them or with them would be tantamount to identifying himself as being "trapped" in this place, planted or entombed at this spot. This idea of entrapment or possession by the land is in direct conflict with the notion (encoded in his bird dream, as well as in the so-called "American Dream") of human spirit as free and mobile. Given such a reading, we understand that it's probably not accidental that this episode concludes by having the land show one final aspect of itself besides those "faces":
Kate lit a cigarette and rested her head on the back of the seat, exhaling the smoke as though she were emptying her body of air. A bird lifted from the cliffs of the butte and drove high into the sky. Loney watched it, the steady rhythm of its wings as it got smaller and smaller. (91)
Despite her own vision of herself, Kate, too, is part of this place--in a sense becoming part of it before Loney's eyes when her breath, manifest in the smoke she exhales, transforms into the image of spiritual freedom he recognizes from his own night visions. Here at Snake Butte, Kate becomes one (whether she herself thinks so or not) among all those others whose faces Loney has seen and continues to see still living in the land as well as in his memories. This moment of insight and understanding raises Loney's own spirit, despite Kate's assertion that "`We have no past'" nor any future together: "`I love you,' he said, and he felt oddly cheerful" (91).
South: The Reservation
Loney's second return to the land south of Harlem in Part 2 is, appropriately enough, with
Rhea; as Loney rejects Kate's offer to transport him to Washington DC in Chapter 13, so in
Chapter 18 he rejects Rhea's invitation to move with her to that other Washington,
specifically Seattle. In this episode as in the one with Kate, Loney's decision cuts two ways:
on the one hand, his choice to stay in Montana effectively cuts him off from the ministrations
of a surrogate mothering figure (and thus in a sense re-enacts the circumstances of
abandonment that are so essential to Loney's personal story), while on the other hand his
choice further commits him to discovering or inventing a ground for identity that
identification with other human beings.
Like Kate before her, Rhea in Chapter 18 is in the process of leaving this place behind her. Stumbling out of a pathetic double blind date into the "virtually deserted" streets of Harlem, "For a brief practical moment she felt she should have said goodbye, but to whom?" (103). As though in answer to her question, Loney appears out of the shadows of Kennedy's bar. Driving away with him in her car a few moments later, "she felt as though they were the only souls out in Harlem." Intuitively, Rhea steers them out of Harlem, though not in the direction of Seattle:
She drove past her street and then past his street [southwest] and soon they were on the outskirts of town where the main street met the new highway. Rhea turned left [southeast] onto the highway and drove slowly toward the agency and the reservation. She didn't know what else to do. (103-04)
As Loney begins to talk about what "troubles" him, Rhea continues to drive slowly and, in her thinking, rather aimlessly; however, her course is tuned to the course of his monolog. Part of what "troubles" Loney, she learns, is his counterpart of her own earlier deer vision:
"I know this is kind of strange, but I see a bird--I don't know what kind of bird it is--but I see it every night. . . . It is a bird I've never seen in real life. . . . It just comes every night, and every night I think, This must have some meaning. Sometimes I think it is a vision sent by my mother's people. I must interpret it, but I don't know how." (104-05)
Though Loney avows not to know what to make of it, his account of what troubles him here weaves together heretofore disparate elements: he has begun to see his vision bird as connected to those faces (presumably his "mother's people") inhabiting Snake Butte as well as to the mask-like face of the Mother Woman he encountered previously in the Mission graveyard. Rhea, steered only by his attempt to explain his need to discover or invent order betweeen his own existence and the existence of these phenomena, finds herself driving onto the reservation--where she "had never actually been" (105) even though her job clearly concerns some of the people living there.10 Crossing the bridge that both connects and separates the reservation and the highway, Rhea "hear[s] herself say" Loney will not accompany her to Seattle. When she "hear[s] herself again," she is posing, as a question, a statement about the relationship between vision and place that Loney himself has only recently begun to accept:
"Did it ever occur to you that if you left you would leave these . . . visions behind? You might become so involved with a new life that your past would fade away--that bird would fade away for good."
"I don't know that I want that to happen." (105-06)
As Rhea points out to Loney (and to us), "`This is your country, isn't it? It means a great deal
to you'" (106). Loney's reply acknowledges at once the truth of her observation,
means, and the more difficult question for him: how it means. As both of them are
to admit frankly, Loney's ability to love the people around him, Rhea included, is dependent
on his ability to work out a meaningful (or "loving") relationship--identity--between his own
existence and the life of this place, and such identity with place, as Silko points out, always
takes the shape of "a returning rather than a separation" (Ceremony 201).
A second major significance of Loney's conversation with Rhea becomes apparent in the next chapter. Alone again in the night prior to his hunting trip with Pretty Weasel, he realizes that four of the major external shapers of his existence (Swipesy, Sandra, Kate, and Rhea) are now either dead or "gone for good." Without these referents for gauging the meaning of his life, he concludes, his life will have no meaning to gauge: "after tomorrow I will have no future. Everybody and everything will be gone from my life. . . . After tomorrow's slim purpose I will simply exist" (108). Loney's thinking here, though perfectly consistent with conventional Highline existentialism, is off on at least two counts. First, as he himself has begun to see during his earlier conversation with Rhea, his identity is tied as closely to the land as to any particular human being living (or, less viably, merely existing or visiting) there. Second, he is momentarily overlooking at least one other person--his father--who still serves to keep him tied to the life of the Highline and thereby separated from the spirit of the land to the south. Despite these rather obvious flaws in his thinking, Loney has now finally begun, albeit awkwardly and perhaps rather clumsily, and without benefit of traditional or tribal role models, to untangle that "bird's nest in his mind" (21), which early in Part 1 is proposed as the major symptom of his paralysis. In managing, as Welch's narrator tells us, to "wipe the slate clean" (108), Loney succeeds in preparing his consciousness to be the "amnesiac's clean slate" (21) upon which may now be recorded the "one event, the one person or moment, that would bring everything back and he would see the order in his life" (20-21).
The hallucinatory event that "drift[s] in" to occupy the cleaned slate of Loney's cleared field of vision involves him and the spirit of his father. First comes the image of his father as a young man carrying his shotgun and "posing for a picture"--a picture Loney remembers having seen "from out of his past" (108); then the picture suddenly metamorphoses into the image that ends Loney's vision in Part 1, Chapter 9, of his grinning, snow-covered father handing him the shotgun, as though passing on a legacy. Finally, he sees his father's face in the window, "blue" and "grinning," perhaps to be understood as a literal as well as metaphorical reflection of Loney's own: prior to this final image, Loney turns on the lamp in the kitchen, an act that would, at night, make the kitchen window a virtual mirror.
This vision does in fact replicate quite precisely at least one important thread running through Loney's past, present, and future, because the transference of the shotgun in this vision not only recalls Loney's earlier mental confusion in Part 1 but also foreshadows the "Remington pump and it looked and felt just as it had in his dream" (149) of Part 3, even while it occupies this present moment in Part 2; seen this way, the image functions to collapse events that Highline thinking "naturally" separates with its model of linear, rational time and space. More importantly, Loney's concept of his father (and to some extent himself) becomes constellated here with the recurring concept of the spirit of the land--his father becomes another of those faces that Loney earlier sees, both in his childhood and in the presence of Kate and Rhea, as aspects of the land's own life. Though Loney continues to recoil from those faces, they have now become central rather than peripheral images in his his vision, signaling a major shift in the quality of his thinking, away from the intrinsically estranging mode of thought typical of the Highline's life and toward a mode more at one with the life of the land that still abides on either side of the Highline's "right of way," awaiting his return.
North: Along the River
Loney's conversation with Rhea and his subsequent vision of his father clear the way for his
encounter with that special aspect of the spirit of the land--the potential for violence
associated with the shotgun in his vision--which (up to this point) he fears, his fear in turn
moving him to detach his chosen life from the possibility of wholeness. In this next episode,
in many ways analogous to Tayo's journey to the northeast corner of Laguna to confront the
Ck'o'yo medicine in Ceremony and to Abel's several confrontations with the Snake
Jemez in House Made of Dawn, Loney is obliged to face up to that "vaguely
spirit inherent in the landscape as well as in himself and which, if ignored or rejected rather
than held and controlled, works toward destructive rather than regenerative ends. This spirit,
in earlier episodes informing those faces Loney sees at Snake Butte, manifests first in the
shape and motion of the Milk River east of Harlem and subsequently in the form of a bear.
Having consciously acknowledged his need to reground his identity in the land, Loney begins to recognize the shape of his own life in the shape of the landscape he moves through. The next morning finds Loney attending less to Pretty Weasel's morning conversation than to the land itself: riding out in Pretty Weasel's pickup to the McFarland place east of town,
Loney felt nothing but the warmth of the wine and a mild regard for the country they passed. It was a shallow country, filled with hayfields, thickets, stands of willow, and leafless cottonwoods that marked the course of a river without movement. (113)
Pretty Weasel, the hunter, sees this stretch of the land only as a reminder of what "we" once won (and by implication later "lost" to white settlers),11 and then as a reminder of "fucking Yellow Eyes," another human loser in his mind. Loney, however, from the vantage point of his "life of more absolute isolation" (112) from human community, sees the place itself, especially the shape winding through it on a course roughly parallel to the fixed course of highway he is still on:
Loney was watching the river in his mind, the loops and bends as gracefully etched in the winter cover as a blue racer snake frozen in the grass. Loney always wondered how that river knew where to bend, why it wandered with such feckless purpose. He wondered if it always sought the lowest ground, or was his mind such a shambles that he assumed there was a reason behind its constant shifting? From the highway it looked aimless and vaguely malevolent and Loney thought there was something of that river in his own life and he didn't think about it. (113)
Like his response to the faces in Snake Butte, Loney, seeing the shape of his life in the shape
of the river, shies from the thought of such a relationship; still the river (like the relationship)
is there, plain enough for him to see and acknowledge. As the episode proceeds and Pretty
Weasel leads him, following the river east past the reservation turnoff and the pink Mission
and then on foot across the river onto the flats north of the highway, Loney's angle of vision
adjusts away from the perspective of the highway to that of the river itself, a process that
enables--as it turns out, forces--him to "think about" (i.e., take hold of, in his vision of
himself) the "something of that river in his own life" (113).
The "something of that river" Loney is obliged to come to living terms with takes the shape not of the pheasant they'd talked about prior to Loney's conversation with Rhea or the deer Pretty Weasel proposes the morning of the hunt, but of a bear. To get to the encounter, Loney must cross the river to its northern side. Pretty Weasel, who leads the way, has no trouble making the transition; true to the spirit of his name, he begins to "slither" easily across the river's "shiny skin of ice" (115), in some places on his belly and in others on fingertips and toes. Loney, on the other hand, has real difficulty maneuvering himself across the (literal and metaphorical) thin ice that separates the life of the Highline from the life appropriate to the landscape north of it.12 Even after he has made the crossing, Loney still shows his reluctance to enter into the life of the place. While Pretty Weasel adjusts his vision to this place (albeit with the aid of his rifle scope), Loney, blinded by the glare of the sunrise, focuses his sight "beyond the fields to the prairies" (116) and beyond them to the Val Marie in his imagination; as Pretty Weasel moves out in pursuit of the "thick dark animal" they have both seen, Loney (who "wasn't anxious to go into the cattails") focuses his thoughts on a different season, one "when the days were hot and the nights cool," a time past or future--but not here, now--when "People always got along better" (117).13 Finally, however, his thoughts curve around to the painful memory of his "lost" mother and of the time when "it had been enough for Loney . . . to know that she existed," whose certain existence Loney has for too long accounted a "dream that one wishes to forget" but, as he realizes now, "had not been a dream at all," has been instead "the stuff of which dreams are made" (119). The implication is that Loney has begun to realize how his own life constitutes, as he puts it, "a real dream made of shit," constructed on the false assumption that a permanent, abiding source of identity (a genuine "possibility of spirit") is a "dream" rather than a thing that exists, and has existed all along. The revery ends with the memory that George Yellow Eyes (who like Loney once thought of Eletra as his mother only to be later left by her) died alone, perhaps dreaming still that his life depended on having a human mother to claim and to claim him.
Called in by the current of Loney's thinking, the dark shape haunting this patch of land reappears, as though to confirm that there is indeed other "stuff" besides lost mothers out of which dreams, or lives, can be made. Importantly, what Loney sees, at the crucial moment, is not a bear--he is, we are told, quite sure there are no "real" bears in this part of the country anymore14--but more precisely the possibility of the bear, an essence or Shadow figure limned in dazzling light against a yellow background of winter cattails. What he further sees is this "possibility of spirit" transform into the living image of Pretty Weasel, whom once (in high school days) Loney accounted an ally but now (after years of their moving in "opposite directions" ) regards as his nemesis:
Then he heard the brittle crashing of the dry stalks and he saw the darkness of it, its immense darkness in that dazzling day, and he thrust the gun to his cheek and he felt the recoil and he saw the astonished look on Pretty Weasel's face as he stumbled two steps back and sat down in the crackling cattails. (120)
Whatever else we may wish to make of this episode, it is clearly the climax of the novel, the moment when Loney's fate seems irrevocable. Within the framework of the novel's existential structuring, the scene is analogous (thematically as well as imagerically) to the moment on the beach in Camus' The Stranger when Mersault kills the Arab, and we may be analogously tempted to view the killing of Pretty Weasel as an "accident," one of those experiential proofs of the fundamental absurdity of the human condition.15 While such a reading is consistent with the tenets of the mainstream postwar literary tradition, Welch is careful to let us know that Loney does not think of it that way:
That it was an accident did not occur to Loney. That the bear, as rare and inexplicable as its appearance had been, was simply a bear did not occur to him either. And so he was inclined to think that what had happened happened because of some quirky and predictable fate. (129)
Loney comes to understand that the nature of the event is consistent with the nature, or
spirit, of the place where it happens: the life of the river involves a "constant shifting," and its
life appears "aimless and vaguely malevolent" (113)--or appears that way until one has come
to identify with its nature, at which time its apparently "feckless purpose" comes to look, if
"quirky," still "predictable."
Because Loney is, after all, a half-blood, we might be tempted, alternatively, to superimpose upon this event a more conventional Indian framework. Within such a context, a man who ceremonially kills a bear does so to acquire identity with its spirit; this is the tradition informing, for instance, Francisco's bear hunt in House Made of Dawn as well as, more remotely but still analogously, Tayo's encounter with "Mountain Lion, the hunter" in Ceremony. From this perspective, we might conclude too hastily that Loney, who can't seem to tell a bear from a weasel, completely botches his chance to acquire identity with that aspect of the land's spirit traditionally embodied in the figure of the bear. Welch, however, shows Loney to be transformed by the encounter: immediately after the shooting, he falls into a state of suspended animation, to be understood perhaps as a period of amnesia induced by shock, or perhaps (and more in keeping with an encounter with bear spirit) a sort of spiritual "hibernation." When he comes out of it several hours later at the beginning of Chapter 23, he moves with the same dangerous purposefulness--which will appear to others, in Part 3, to be "quirky" and "vaguely malevolent" but still "predictable"--that tradition attributes to the spirit of the bear and that Loney earlier has attributed to the life of the river. Further, Loney comes out of his fugue state animated by the instincts of the hunter, or of the hunted. He "knew he had to get up and run away from there" (120), even as he knows (and his first memory after the shooting confirms) that people exist who can, and will, hunt him down.16
The transformation in Loney's identity wrought by this event is expressed most clearly in the quality of his subsequent motion. In contrast to his clumsiness prior to the shooting (deriving in part from his consciously felt purposelessness and aimlessness), he now moves with some agility, even grace:
Loney was on the Old Highway running hard toward Harlem, . . . his body empty and light. He was conscious of nothing those first several miles but his shuddering breath and the impatient beat of his heart: Val Ma-rie, Val Ma-rie, Val Ma-rie, Val Ma-rie. (122)
The sound his heart is here attuned to, "Val Ma-rie," is almost right; but as he is to discover
in the process of living out this new sense of animacy acquired (ultimately) from the land, his
own best place in the landscape lies not north in the direction of Val Marie but rather south
at Mission Valley. For the time being, though, the road he is on--not the Highline anymore
but rather the "Old Highway"17--functions as a re-emergence route, and, as Part 2 closes,
Loney, re-entering Harlem for the last time, is completing the first leg of his journey back
into identity with the landscape: "still running, his body still light, and the steps came with
such ease that he couldn't tell if he was touching the earth" (122). His motion finally
integrates two internal resources he has always had but which heretofore have fit nowhere in
his conscious sense of himself: the part of himself, or spirit, of the bird that he takes to be a
"vision sent by my mother's people" (105) and the part that he sees take form as the bear and
that others see in Loney as something "wolfish" (58, 63, 66) about him.18 Loney is arguably
conscious of neither of these two aspects of his own identity (we are told on page
instance, that "his consciousness had dimmed in the past couple of months, along with his
thinking"), but he is clearly moving in the awareness of these two aspects of both
Thus motivated, Loney proceeds in Part 3 to "devise an end of his own" (130) consistent with his (re-)awakened spiritual capacities. As he checks his new identity against the figures of Kate, Sandra, Ike, Rhea, Amos After Bull, and finally the Mother Woman, he lives methodically in Part 3, reintegrating the principal elements of his life that have appeared in Parts 1 and 2.
Equally important is the way he checks his new identity not only against these elements but also against the places that have occupied his conscious attention up to now. From this perspective, his experience early in Part 3 tells him where not to locate the event of his life; his attempt to contact Kate in Chapter 2 yields only a recorded message from the direction of Washington DC, while the possibility of relocating his existence in Seattle is rejected both in his talk with his father (Chapter 8) and in his later last encounter with Rhea (Chapter 11). In between, in Chapter 4, he visits the Harlem graveyard, the town's counterpart of the Mission graveyard he visits in Part 1 and passes on the way to the river in Part 2, looking for some evidence that Sandra ever existed external to his own imagination; but with the wind blowing from the north (132), he finds no surrogate Mother Woman moving there, no avatar of the life of the land to hold or be held by. Although Loney concludes during this part of his re-encounter with the dispirited life of Harlem that "there was no real love in his life" (134), the thought tells us only that up to this point there is "no real love" to be found in Harlem or, by extension, anywhere else on the Highline that connects two Washingtons with Harlem in between.
Loney's return to Ike's trailer on the east edge of town (Chapters 7-9) is, like the rest of his
motion in the first half of Part 3, guided by his newly acquired motive to "devise an end of his
own." What he seeks now, however, is specifically a satisfactorily constellated version of the
confusing and unfinished story of his biological and, by extension, cultural heritage.
From Ike, Loney gets a nicely detailed image of the original Mother Woman in his life. According to Ike, her name was Eletra Calf Looking, "the prettiest damn girl you ever saw," a "full-blooded Gros Ventre" who, when Ike first met her, was "fresh in from Lodgepole" and "kind of like a sleek animal" (141). Physiologically, the portrait Ike paints is perfectly congruent with Loney's earlier dream vision (in Part 1) of the "mother who is not a mother" in the mission graveyard. Just as importantly, Ike's account disabuses Loney of the notion that his Native cultural legacy is encoded in the name Westwolf ("Westwolf, hell," Ike tells him, "There aren't even any Westwolfs out in that part of the country" ); unlike the protagonist of Winter in the Blood, Loney is not, on his mother's side, a misplaced Blackfeet on traditionally Gros Ventre land. Instead, the name "Calf Looking" serves semantically to verify the substance of Loney's earlier dream vision: depending on whether we take Calf to be the subject or the object of the phrase, the name tells both the story of Loney, a lost child looking for his mother, and the story of Eletra, a lost mother looking for her child. By further disabusing Loney of the notion that he was ever "a kind of lover to Sandra" (145), Ike's account of Loney's origins allows him to reground his idea of the source of loveability (one of those "possibilities of spirit" he seeks) in specific places south of Harlem (Lodgepole, the Agency) rather than in Harlem proper.
Further: while Ike's stories allow Loney to re-anchor the past history of his capacity for love in spatial and temporal certainties, he offers Loney no useful information about where to find either of these human versions of the Mother Spirit in the present. In response to Loney's pointed questions, Ike professes to know nothing of Sandra's present whereabouts, while his statement that Eletra currently lives "down in New Mexico," "a nurse or something in one of them reservation hospitals," is not only a lie but (according to Ike's thinking, anyway) Loney knows it's a lie (144). The point is that Welch here leaves Loney to discover (or invent) whatever future history of love he will have. Lacking any knowledge of the whereabouts of either Eletra or Sandra, and having already decided not to follow Kate to Washington DC or Rhea to Seattle, he is left with only the nurturing spirit of the immediate landscape to look to as a source of revised, healing identity, both as an individual and as a member of a "family": as we (and Loney) have already seen, faces wait to be identified with, out in the direction of Snake Butte and Mission Canyon.
This interview with Ike also liberates Loney from the psychological stranglehold of terror he has invested in the image of his father; that terror, a powerful influence on him for the past 25 years, becomes "nothing more than a bird disappearing in the night" (140). By analogy, Loney similarly reclaims as his own whatever feelings he has heretofore invested in the images of Eletra and Sandra--comes, that is, to see these feelings as originating in himself rather than in the objects to which he has consciously assigned them. This explains why, when at the end of his information-gathering Loney reciprocates by giving Ike a story to conjure with, Welch's narrator can say that "his mother and the social worker were gone now, wiped clean from his mind" (146). It would also account for Loney's curious insight into the nature of "guilt" that ends Chapter 7. Once his vision of his mother and Sandra has become re-grounded in the land, Loney becomes capable of recognizing and locating his own complicity in the "bad end" to which all of them-- Eletra, Sandra, Ike, and himself--have come: "And Loney knew who the guilty party was. It was he who was guilty, and in a way that made his father's past sins seem childish, as though original sin were something akin to stealing candy bars" (146). The "sin" here is that Loney has been attempting to possess the lives of Eletra, Sandra, and Ike by subordinating their existence to his own need: "He had felt when he entered the trailer that there had to be an explanation to their existences" (146), more specifically an explanation functioning to confirm Loney's own preconceived assumption of his own life's value and significance. Loney's guilt, as he comes to see it rightly, lies in the willed imposition of his need for a coherent "story" upon the lives--the "stories"--of others, a choice that (like constructing a Highline through the lives of the People and the land) turns his need into an act of violation and imposition.
Consistent with this new understanding, Loney's version of his encounter with Pretty Weasel in Chapter 8 is carefully fashioned as a gift for Ike to do with what he will. The story he tells, like the snow-covered footprint of the bobcat he remembers near the end of Part 2, asserts only that something happened; by imposing no interpretation of his own on it, calling the shooting neither accidental nor purposeful and claiming neither self-defense nor intentional homicide, Loney calls out Ike's "tracking skills." How far he has moved from the Highline way of life becomes apparent his response to Ike's enthusiastic advice. Ike's counsel, which reflects his own personal history and its strategy of escapism, is to "`lose yourself in a city--Seattle, Portland, California!' Ike was excited by the prospect. He had only gotten as far as Butte" (148). Loney, however, finds himself choosing to decline the "three new twenty-dollar bills" his father generously offers as bus fare, not because he wishes to insult his father but rather because the pattern of this event is now centripetal rather than centrifugal:
And Loney said, "I'm not going away." Then he added, as the thought struck him, "I'm going to the Little Rockies." Then he added again, "Up Mission Canyon. I'm going to think."
"Why there? It's winter, for Christ's sake."
But Loney couldn't answer. . . . But he thought, That's where I'll go, that's the best place. "Mission Canyon," he said again to make sure that his father knew. It was part of a dim plan that he didn't understand. (148-49)
While he may not "understand" it, still he knows that this plan--the structure of
event of his life--is about bringing his existence into identity with the landscape where that
event has taken place and now will continue. As though to confirm the correctness of
Loney's intuitive recognition that Mission Canyon is the "best place" to complete this pattern,
Ike's next gesture is identical with the gesture of the father figure in Loney's recurring dream
vision: "without a word" Ike replaces the offering of twenty-dollar bills with a "long object
wrapped in an army blanket," an ironic version of a traditional medicine bundle containing
the sixteen gauge shotgun of Loney's previous visions. The congruence here (and elsewhere
throughout Part 3) between Loney's living experience and his abiding vision of How Things
Are (or Ought To Be when correctly informed by the "possibilities of spirit") suggests that
his desires are moving into constellated congruence with the external world. Though he still
may not understand this event, his awareness of it (along with his willingness to remain
engaged with it) is clear enough: leaving Ike's trailer with the shotgun, we are told, "His head
was very clear and the night was clear and cold" (150).
As a gesture, the two shotgun blasts that follow can be understood as Loney's calculated confirmation of his own capacity for violence, an existential demonstration of his own allegiance to the spirit of the shotgun and all it represents. However, he then immediately moves in a direction calculated to subordinate the destructive spirit of this gesture to its regenerative complement within himself as well as within the milieu of Harlem:
For just an instant he smelled the gunpowder before the wind carried it away. He had heard neither explosion and he knew that the wind had blown the noise toward town. He turned in that direction and hurried down off the road and up over the railroad tracks. (150)
Moving south (with the wind) and west (away from the
east edge of town) brings him to
Rhea's house. Outside, the winter continues to be "too harsh and unremitting, caus[ing]
people to behave badly" (150); inside, in a temporary space made "clean and warm" (152) by
Rhea's ministration, Lonely willingly and easily conforms his behavior to the spirit of the
deer, leaving the shotgun leaning "against the wall by the door" and lying to her about the
"good time" he has just had with his father. Rhea needs to hear some such lie: since she
knows already that come morning she will be leaving Harlem (and the only thing she cares
about in Harlem is Loney), the lie "made her feel for a moment that something good could
happen in this town" and by extension lets her experience the feeling that, as Loney says,
"Everything's okay now" (152-53).
Like the time spent with his father earlier this night, Loney's time with Rhea on the other side of Harlem allows him to gather into the evolving pattern of his vision-directed life those elements that he has, up until now, dissociated from his felt identity and invested instead in her. In Parts 1 and 2 of the novel, Rhea, and later Rhea and Kate, make the connection between their hopes for Loney's recovery and the view of the Little Rockies from Rhea's window; in Part 3, Loney himself makes the connection between his need to leave Harlem and the vista to the south (153). Further, the figure of his fugitive bird begins here to conflate with the image of Rhea herself:
Loney stared up at the ceiling. He felt he was in a dream and he was conscious only of Rhea's weight on his chest. He heard nothing and he saw nothing and he liked it like that. . . . Her voice came from a long way off. He held her tight and he knew that she had loved him. . . . I have to leave, he thought, but he held her as though to prevent her from slipping away. (154)
Perhaps the clearest indication that he succeeds in recovering the particular "possibilit[y] of
spirit" previously associated with the bird of his nocturnal visions and Rhea's deer vision is
his ability--and willingness--to liberate her completely from his previous dependence on her
presence in the story of his life. As he leaves, Rhea still dreams of happiness and success
("Tomorrow the world!"  she exclaims in her sleep), and Loney chooses to leave her
free to pursue that dream--"and in an odd way he felt he was sparing her life. And more than
that, he felt that he was giving her her life" (156). Like the story of the killing of Pretty
Weasel he gives his father, the lie of a happy ending is a parting gift he offers Rhea, a way of
giving her back the life she has perhaps wholeheartedly, but nonetheless futilely, invested in
the figure of Loney.
At about this time in the formal structure of the novel, Kate also lets go of her claim on his spirit. As he begins moving south across the reservation towards the Little Rockies, Kate (in her Georgetown apartment two time zones to the east) contemplates the painting that hangs on her wall "of a [fancy] dancer walking home along a highway, still in full regalia but lonely and tired" (164-65). Struck by the sudden awareness that she has not "create[d] something for him to go home to" (165), Kate decides she has failed her brother. By claiming responsibility for Loney's fate, Kate continues to impose her own design upon his life (as do Ike and Rhea); but even in her vision, now, he is moving not into identity with her project (to make a home for him in Washington DC) but rather towards "The land [that] was a series of browns and yellows leading to an ocher sky" (165).
Having thus reassimilated into himself the several avatars of the spirit of the life he has lived in Harlem and carrying with him the "three or four inches" of Scotch remaining in a bottle he finds in Rhea's kitchen, Loney continues on in the direction he has been heading throughout Part 3--geographically, south toward the Little Rockies and Mission Canyon, spiritually toward complete reintegration of his life with the regenerative spirit of the land.
South: Mission Canyon
The next time we see Loney, in Chapter 14, he is heading in the "right" direction, on the way to the "best place" to end this story. To get there, Welch tells us,
Loney turned south at the agency onto 376. It was a good highway, straight and true to the Little Rockies. The first few miles it dipped in and out of deep wide gullies that carried the spring runoff down to the Milk River valley. After that it climbed up onto the prairies and rolled gently south. (163)19
Leaving his abandoned car like a marker along his trail "about a quarter mile from the Hays cutoff" (165) where anyone hunting him is sure to find it and correctly surmise his subsequent direction of travel, Loney then strikes out on foot towards the lights of Hays, which lie between him and "the Little Rockies, black and silent, about three miles distant" (165); half an hour later he is walking through Hays, the small town "on the edge of the world" (166) where young Amos After Buffalo lives, a place where Loney finds himself in the hour before first daylight asking a "rangy black dog" to deliver a dream message to Amos. Earlier, we may recall, Amos suggested to Loney that the "best thing" to do with Swipesy's frozen body would be to bury it "out there" in the mountains beyond Hays; the unspoken assumption is that doing so will put the body close to its proper spirit home. That Loney has come around to this concept is clear from the message he asks the Hays dog to impart to Amos:
"You tell Amos that Jim Loney passed through town while he was dreaming. Don't tell him you saw me with a bottle and a gun. That wouldn't do. Give him dreams. Tell him you saw me carrying a dog and that I was taking that dog to a higher ground. He will know." (167)
Here at the edge of the world--in the transitional zone between the life of the Highline and all
that cannot take shape there--it looks possible again, to Loney, to act as though possibilities
A mile closer to the "edge of the world," he reaches the mouth of Mission Canyon, described as though it were the physical opening into some other world or mode of existence, analogous to the sipapu or spirit gateway of Pueblo culture:20
When he reached the mouth of Mission Canyon, it was coming dawn and the tall gray walls seemed more a barrier than an entrance. He stopped and caught his breath and took one last look at the world. And it was the right light to see the world, halfway between dark and dawn, a good way to see things, the quiet pleasure of deciding whether things were there or not there. (167)
Like Tayo on Mount Taylor or Abel on the beach, Loney arrives at a moment of balance. Externally, the time is between night and day, and the place itself is located between one set of possibilities (to the north and west, the Highline way of life) and another (to the south and east, the wilderness of the Little Rockies). Analogously but internally, having disinvested himself from the possessive spirits of Kate, Rhea, and his father, he has in effect reclaimed his life and here stands free to choose where (if anywhere) and in what (if in anything) he will reinvest it--that is, identify with. No longer claiming and thus no longer feeling claimed by the world or any part of it, he no longer has anything to lose, indeed "a good way to see things." With this cleared vision, he is now able to see both the landscape before him and the "possibilities of spirit" abiding there without any diseasing effect:
If it had been any other night Loney would have been a little frightened by those towering cold walls, the darkness and his step. He thought about the Indians who had used the canyon, the hunting parties, the warriors, the women who had picked chokeberries farther up. He thought of the children who had played in the stream, and the lovers. These thoughts made him comfortable and he wasn't afraid. (168)
The choice Loney in fact makes is to continue to evolve
into identity with the land
unfolding in the direction he is moving. On the other side of the narrow creek he must cross
to do so, "the canyon opened out into a small valley filled with alder, chokeberry bushes,
willow and buckbrush" (169). As the sky begins to turn "from gray to light blue," he reaches
a place remembered from his childhood, where to his right (west) lies a clearing beside the
road and to the left (east), where the ridge of the canyon continues to rise steeply, is the
"rocky outcropping" that stands out like a sentinel looking back toward the entrance to the
canyon, a high place that "didn't seem so far away now, and it didn't appear as menacing as it
had that day he climbed it and spied on the minister and his wife" (170). Here, near the
southeastern end of the natural passageway connecting the world without to the place called
Mission Valley within, he leaves the road and climbs the outcropping to keep watch (as is
appropriate to the hunter/hunted man he has chosen to become) for those who come,
knowing they will, as even Painter Barthelme can now see, "to clean up this loose end, to end
this awful business for his own sake, to end with a little honor" (171).
Here in Mission Canyon, Loney is positioned where he can be found not only by the forces desiring to destroy his life but also by those desiring to recover it; just as importantly, he has devised an end that, rather than denying one or the other, welcomes both. From the point of view of Doore, Lefthand, and Barthelme (as well as quite a few critics of the novel), Loney's last stand is primarily a surrender to the former, but from his own new prespective he is also positioning himself to recover his birthright identity with the latter. Looking back the way he came in Chapter 19, "down to the foot of the valley where the road forded the creek" (174), he cannot remember how many shotgun shells he has left nor, from time to time, what he's looking for in that direction. However, he does see and remember, here in the transition time between night and day, the face of the young woman who had lost her son. For Loney, recognizing her "was easy this time" (175) and, thanks to his designing of events in Part 3, the son who in his earlier dream "would not allow himself to be found" is now "out here in these mountains, waiting. And he wondered if he would be found, if he would see her again . . ." (175). What may seem at first to be an awkward confusion of pronoun referents in this passage is actually a statement of identity: the missing son of the Mother Woman's story and the motherless son of Loney's own life's story are indistinguishable. He has become, in the way he sees himself in relation to the female spirit, one of the Calf Looking people. As we see a page later from the perspective of his pursuers, he has also become practically indistinguishable from the canyon wall: "Loney's craggy perch was a couple of hundred yards from the road and about a hundred feet up. They would never see him" (176)--not, that is, until he draws their attention to this newest face in the landscape.
From a Highline-oriented point of view, his transition, the return of his spirit to the landscape of its origin, is an event that is barely visible and even then unintelligible. Again, Painter Barthelme serves as the foil in the novel to make this point for Welch: "Painter read the signs, but he didn't know why Loney would do this. There are odd things that people do, he thought, things done out of a need that defies an ordinary man's reasoning" (178). Barthelme is an "ordinary man" in the sense that he blithely but mistakenly assumes his own existential placelessness to be the natural human condition. Like one of those tourists Welch once considered hijacking, Barthelme wishes only to "get through this country [and this event he has become part of] as fast as possible"; in order to be able to see Loney (or anything else) here in Mission Canyon, he needs the binoculars Lefthand provides him with; and even after he recognizes Loney's face among the rocks as "one he had seen a few times before, once in a bar close enough to touch," he tells himself that the touch, like the country, "meant nothing" (178).
Loney, too, knows what it is to see life this way. However, Welch provides him and the reader with an alternative to this placeless, meaningless mode of human existence, or at least a vision of such an alternative's possibility. With no traditional stories to guide him and conditioned instead by 32 years of Highline education, he cannot accurately preconceptualize the Shadow World he is entering; the best he can imagine is "Welch's half-breed heaven, High Line grace" (Bevis, "Homing In" 615), a vague idea of
another place where people bought each other drinks and talked quietly about their pasts, their mistakes and their small triumphs; a place where those pasts merged into one and everything was all right and it was like everything was beginning again without a past. No lost sons, no mothers searching. There had to be that place, but it was not on this earth. (175)
He can, however, now see the shadow side of the world he is leaving: as Doore's second
bullet terminates his mortal existence, "the last thing he saw were the beating wings of a dark
bird as it climbed to a distant place" (179)--presumably that part of his own spirit belonging
to this place returning, freed, to it.
Most readers find the ending of The Death of Jim Loney the most problematic episode of a consistently problematic text. However, when read as an "event taking place," during which human identity becomes a function of a shaping landscape, the event structure of The Death of Jim Loney is in several very important respects not so very different from those of Ceremony and House Made of Dawn. As is the case for Loney along the Milk River, both Tayo (on Mount Taylor) and Abel (at the edge of the ocean) experience a crucial moment of vision during which each protagonist comes to know, past doubting or question, that his life and the life of the land are inseparable. At this moment, the only choice to be made is whether to maintain human form or to return to shadow form. Both Tayo and Abel choose to continue in the Fifth World; Loney chooses the alternative. For Tayo and Abel, the subsequent process of recovering identity with their respective landscapes happens to be aligned with their return to--recovery of--a good way of life. Loney's subsequent movement into identity with the landscape is aligned with his desire to discover or invent a good way of dying-- which is to say, a good way of living out the end of his mortal existence.21 In this sense, Loney's experience is, by analogy, more like Francisco's than like Abel's: his death constitutes the sort of transition into identity with the landscape from which there is no mortal return. But it is still an act of identity, and it is still, as Silko explains in Ceremony, "a returning rather than a separation" (201) and thus a cure for the disease of alienation.
1In Bevis, "Dialogue with James Welch" 165. [back]
2It is probably safe to say that Welch has become canonized as one of the four or five major American Indian authors, novelist or otherwise. Velie's 1982 study Four American Indian Masters treats Momaday, Silko, Welch, and Vizenor. Of the nine chapters in Lincoln's Native American Renaissance (1983), three focus on individual writers: "Word Senders: Black Elk and N. Scott Momaday," "Blackfeet Winter Blues: James Welch," and "Grandmother Storyteller: Leslie Silko" (his preface to the 1985 paperback edition includes a lengthy tribute to Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine). Under the heading "Contemporary Fiction," Wiget (Native American Literature) includes the subsections "N. Scott Momaday," "Leslie Marmon Silko," "James Welch," and "Other novels and novelists." Allen's 1986 The Sacred Hoop devotes more space to the study of Momaday, Silko, and Welch than to any other writers. [back]
3See, for instance, Jahner, "A Critical Approach" 221-23; Sands, "Indian or Not?"; Thackeray, "Crying for Pity"; and Purdy, "Bha'a and The Death of Jim Loney." [back]
4Lewis refers to Loney's emotional detachment as his being "under existential novocaine" (4) and compares him to Updike's Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run. Bevis asserts that Loney "could be called existential, meaning that there can be something positive in taking responsibility for even a meaningless act--an act that won't do any real good" ("Dialogue" 177); Lincoln sees the novel as a "surreal play" (183) that is so existential it's nihilistic: "Nothing matters in this novel of small revelations" (Native American Renaissance 166). In his well-thought-out article "The Death of Jim Loney as a Half-Breed's Tragedy," Thackeray makes Loney out to be a tragic existential hero: heroic because he accepts (and acts out) responsibility for his earlier "choice of the White world" (3) of the Highline, tragic because the white world wasn't worth choosing in the first place. Thackeray's argument is that Loney's Highline existence has resulted in the loss of "the whole of his Indian heritage" (2); my own contention is that Loney never had much of a heritage, in the sense of a cultural literacy, to lose, but that whatever he has "lost" is still recoverable through reidentification with the land--the source of his heritage, cultural and otherwise. [back]
5For an excellent social history of the Belknap area, including a study of the interrelationships among the area's Gros Ventre and Assiniboine inhabitants since the mid-1800s, see Fowler's Shared Symbols, Contested Meanings. Her study of Gros Ventre cultural history maintains that the "heart" of Gros Ventre traditionalism is (and since the turn of the century has been) located in and around Hays, the small town near the mouth of Mission Canyon (where Amos After Buffalo lives in the novel), while the heart of Assiniboine traditionalism is located a few miles east at Lodgepole (where, according to Ike's account, Loney's mother Eletra comes from), also at the foot of the Little Rockies. According to Fowler, oldtimers--Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Longhairs--have always been available and accessible to Gros Ventre (as well as mixed-blood) youngsters looking for cultural guidance or seeking ceremonial intervention. [back]
6In an interview with Coltelli, Welch differentiates between the structure of a traditional vision quest and the makeshift quest that Loney undergoes:
. . . it's hard for twentieth-century people actually to do a vison quest in that traditional way; in a sense, I guess, it has became a metaphysical vision quest or at least an abstract vision quest. I mean, in the real [traditional] vision quest the people went to seek a vision and from that vision they would know how to conduct themselves. . . . Depending upon which power animal appeared to them, they would take attributes of that animal . . . a traditional vision quest always had a particular thing that it sought and then once the vision came it had almost a practical aspect; then you could use the power that the vision represented. In a sense I can't see either character, in either novel [Winter in the Blood or The Death of Jim Loney], having finally received a vision. . . . I'm not so sure that my supposed vision quest in those novels really came to the kind of fruition that a true vision quest comes to. (187-88) [back]
7At the end of the chapter preceding Loney's dream of the deserted mother, we are told that Rhea, while standing watch as Loney sleeps, hears (or perhaps imagines) a voice, presumably Loney's, nominating her "the only friend I've got in this world." Her response links her own doubts about her ability to serve Loney well with her pipedream of starting over in Seattle: "`I know,' she heard her own clear voice say, `and it frightens me.' And she watched dawn and thought about Seattle" (33). [back]
8Loney's view of Ike's trailer in Part 3 re-emphasizes its (and its inhabitant's) alienation from the rest of Harlem: "At night it looked even more remote, as though it had never been intended to be a part of the town" (137). [back]
9As surrealistic as it might seem in the text here, this pink-painted Catholic church, along with its little graveyard, exists outside the novel as well. It sits perched on a knoll on the north side of U.S. 2 between Harlem and Dodson, its front doors padlocked but the graveyard (laid out along its north and east sides) openly accessible. As in the novel, a person standing in the graveyard itself has a clear view to the north of the Milk River (and, beyond, the plains rolling northward to Canada) and, in the opposite direction, an equally unobstructed view of the reservation and the Little Rockies to the south. [back]
10As Rhea herself acknowledges in her thinking,
One of her best students, Arlene Small, lived out here with her mother. Arlene, like most of her Indian students, was shy, and Rhea had often wished she could take the girl home with her, to get to know her, but there were barriers. There were always barriers, some artificial, some natural. (105)
This could, of course, be taken as an accurate bottom-line assessment of Rhea's relationship to Loney as well. [back]
11Note Pretty Weasel's conscious identification, not with the land, but rather with his "people" and their history. I read his comment ("we won it all once" ) as double entendre, "it" referring not only to the 1958 state basketball championship but also to the land passing by on the other side of the car window--land which now, in Pretty Weasel's thinking, belongs to someone else. [back]
12Pretty Weasel's agility here (as his name further suggests) might be taken to imply that such motion in such places comes "naturally" enough to him. Though Loney also has much of the predator in his personality (the "wolfish" features attributed to him both by Kate [63, 66] and by the old Cree lady at the airport ), he has spent most of his life repressing it, and consequently, as Pretty Weasel puts it, he moves more like a "porcupine" (116) than a natural predator (snake, weasel, bear, or whatever) in this scene. Welch is, I think, inviting us to recognize that Loney's moves have grown rusty during the years of his spiritual hibernation, as has his ability to see clearly in the dazzling light he encounters in this scene. [back]
13Apropos of the seasonal dimension of this event, it is set in time on the day of the Winter Solstice (we are told that three days after the shooting Loney calls Kate on the 23rd of December [128-29] and "old man Pretty Weasel" notifies authorities that his son has been missing for three days ). Even though Welch's text fixes events in time relative to such red-letter dates of the Highline calendar as Thanksgiving and Christmas, significant re-emergences of life forces in the novel still honor a more traditionally Native American sense of timing, and so the timing of Loney's last stand at Mission Canyon, which occurs on the fourth dawn subsequent to the shooting of Pretty Weasel, is probably not coincidental. [back]
14When Pretty Weasel confirms Loney's own identification of the "thick dark animal" they both see, Loney "wanted to ask why that was a bear. There were no bears anymore. They had been driven out of the valley years ago by settlers and hunters" (117). [back]
15Niatum has commented on the similarities he, too, perceives between Camus and Welch in his article "On Stereotypes" (552). See also Craig, who likens Loney's actions in Part 3 to "those of Mersault in Camus's The Stranger" (188). [back]
16This knowledge apparently comes to Loney precisely in the form of the memory I am alluding to, in which Loney recalls how he once watched his father discover the snowcovered footprint of a bobcat one day when "the light was just like this, blue going on gray, the sun just a light on the evening star" (121). The memory is particularly ominous: we know already that Loney has acquired precious little practice or skill in the business of hunting (we are told that "his father had never instructed him in anything" , which helps to explain why Loney leaves Pretty Weasel to select the game, to provide him with a gun, to do the stalking, and even to identify their quarry); the implication is that even though Loney knows his life has become a hunt, he also knows he lacks the prerequisite skills of the hunter, much less the skills to survive as the quarry of accomplished hunters. [back]
17The "Old Highway" here is the road designated FAS 396 on the BIA's reservation road map. It parallels the Burlington Northern Railway tracks laid north of the Milk River. Approaching Harlem from the west, the "New Highway"--U.S. Rt. 2, the "Highline"--replaced 396 up to a point about a mile west of Harlem, where U.S. 2 dips suddenly southeast to a point just south of the Milk River and then roughly parallels the river to a point just east of the current reservation boundary, where it crosses the Milk and rejoins 396. Compare, in House Made of Dawn, Francisco's use of the "old wagon road" rather than Route 4 to get from Jemez to San Ysidro, or Tayo's choice (Ceremony 169-70) to take the wagon road rather than Route 66 to return from Mesita to Laguna, as similar metaphors for choosing to conform personal motion more closely to the natural contours of the land, thus keeping one more in tune with whatever regenerative spirit lives there. [back]
18It is tempting, in Jungian terms, to see the bird as a figure of Loney's spiritual anima, the unconsciously-coded psychological legacy of his "full-blooded Gros Ventre" mother (and also the source of his vision of the Mother Woman in the Mission graveyard), and to see the bear (like the wolf) as a figure of his spiritual animus, the legacy of his predatory father. The former would "naturally" tend to lead Loney towards identification with the landscape, while the latter would account for Loney's obsession with coming to terms with Ike and the life of the Highline more generally. Within this context we might conclude that Loney suffers in the first two parts of the novel from a dissociated personality (anima at odds with animus, consciousness allied with neither). The "cure" for Loney's disease would then lie in his ability to re-integrate these three elements of his personality. By the end of Part 2 Loney has indeed reintegrated the anima and animus aspects of his spirit (as we see in Part 3, he becomes capable of loving Rhea while being equally capable of dealing with Ike on Ike's turf), and, although he may not be conscious of the event of reintegration, he is conscious of the effects of it--capable of thinking he is able to love and equally able to make his father cooperate with his designs. What is most important here is that the event of reintegration requires the intercession of the land: Loney must enter into identification with a landscape before he can do anything about his internal disease. [back]
19The road Welch describes here, "376" (designated "FAS 376" on the BIA's highway system map of the Fort Belknap Reservation, though labeled "state route 66" on geodetic survey maps), is the only continuously paved road running north-south from one end of the reservation to the other. It does in fact run "straight and true" (on a line running exactly north-south) for thirty miles between a point just east of Snake Butte (about six miles southeast from its junction with U.S. 2, the "Highline") and the Hays turnoff (at which point the road begins to follow the contour of the mountains east and west of it, to intersect at the "D Y Junction" with U.S. 191). [back]
20The concept of such a gateway or opening between the real world and the spirit world is of course not limited to Pueblo thinking. Typically, the Pueblo opening or sipapu is a hole in the ground; in other Native American groups, the opening connects not up and down worlds but across worlds (as, for instance, the canyon Tségihi in Navajo). The latter is probably what Welch has in mind here. Wiget says that local Indians regard Mission Canyon as a "portal into the next life" (Native American Literature 93). Compare Welch's use of the Blackfeet version of this motif in Fool's Crow). [back]
21From a conventionally existential perspective, of course, Loney's choice to die (along with all the actions for which that choice becomes the raison d'être) is, like all choice, an act of invention. Alternately, from a traditional Native perspective, it can be read as a recovery or rediscovery. Purdy summarizes this point neatly in an unpublished manuscript entitled "`He Was Going Along': Motion in the Novels of James Welch":
Once [Welch's] protagonists move away from the towns and the Highline, they are given a chance to learn to move deliberately. . . . As Kathleen Sands has noted [in "Indian or Not?"], after the death of Pretty Weasel, Loney moves as a Gros Ventre warrior, choosing the place, time and way of his death. . . . The movement betwen life and death, like movement between any two places or realms of experience, may be handled appropriately, even by someone, like Loney, who has been isolated from the tribal knowledge and world view that have enlightened the movement of other generations. Loney is guided by a force he has no means to comprehend; Bha'a --Thunderer--has come to him in a dream, but he lacks the stories necessary to interpret that dream. The intimate connection between a people and a landscape remains, even though one member may lack the knowledge of how to perform responsibly his obligation to that relationship. (20-21) [back]