Almanac of the Dead

You can say one thing for Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead — it gives fair warning: The entire back cover of the book’s jacket is devoted to an encomium from Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove. Besides finding Silko’s work ”tinted with genius,” McMurtry informs us that ”if Karl Marx had chosen to make Das Kapital a novel set in the Americas, he might have come out with a book something like this.” Putting aside the fact that McMurtry is Silko’s close personal friend and that the book is dedicated ”To Larry, for all the love,” readers ought to be grateful for his candor.

In contemporary literary usage, you see, the term ”genius” normally translates: ”For academic use only. Do not attempt to read for pleasure.” Mention of Das Kapital also helps define things. We’re talking homework here, folks, the windiest kind of bombast served up in the name of ”multiculturalism.” We’re talking about a talented author whose 1977 novel, Ceremony, made her a celebrity in circles in which a writer’s ethnicity — Silko grew up on a Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico — looms large as a critical consideration. The recipient of a MacArthur ”genius” award, Silko has been a long time writing her second novel.

Vastly ambitious in scope, Almanac of the Dead frequently reads like a James Michener saga for the politically correct. It is set for the most part in the southwest and in Mexico, and it takes place in the near future when the ”giant stone snake” of Pueblo lore reappears near a uranium mine on the Laguna reservation, signaling that white folks have had it in North America.

In keeping with ancient Native American prophecy, the angry spirits are fixing to avenge themselves upon the corrupt, dead European souls. ”The ancestors,” after all, ”had called Europeans ‘the orphan people’ and had noted that few Europeans had remained whole. They failed to recognize the earth was their mother. Europeans were like their first parents, Adam and Eve, wandering aimlessly because the insane God who had sired them had abandoned them.”

To underline Caucasian iniquity, much of the narrative concentrates in considerable — one might even say loving — detail upon European penchants for dope snorting, murder, and buggery. Especially buggery. Judging by the number and variety of gay villains in Almanac of the Dead, Silko seems more than a little homophobic.

Of course, all the homosexuality is meant to be deeply symbolic of the white man’s spiritual sterility: the bisexual who wins fame exhibiting art photos of his ex-lover’s suicide; the gay racist who kidnaps and makes snuff photos of his lover’s infant son; the federal judge who watches the activities at whorehouses, then races home to his specially trained basset hounds; the impotent, paraplegic ”bio-materials” dealer who fellates homeless vagrants even as he murders them by draining their blood for resale. And on and on and on.

Fear not, there’s plenty of European heterosexual perversity, too. But what’s objectionable about Almanac isn’t its politics. Swift and Celine held views many of us would find repellent. Silko, however, writes in an angry, inflexible monotone. Aiming at bitter satire, she delivers only sarcasm. D

Almanac of the Dead
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