Managing the Mountain
Teachers Who Change Lives
AROUND THE OVAL
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
About the Montanan
by Joyce H. Brusin
The New Fiedler Reader
Dipping into this imposing collection feels like sampling the tastiest offerings at a Chinese dim sum, a Napa Valley winery or a Christmas smorgasbord. Leslie Fiedler, an imposing figure himself in the cover photo by UM photographer Todd Goodrich, has spent a lifetime churning away at the cream of American letters. One doesnt have to agree with every sentence of these twenty-eight essays, four stories, and numerous poems, to appreciate the erudition, wit, and rambunctious intelligence at work in them.
The book opens with Fiedlers classic Come Back to the Raft Agin, Huck Honey, originally published in Partisan Review in June 1948. Those who know no other Fiedler work know of this essay in which he points out the homoeroticism he sees running rampant through Huckleberry Finn and other American novels. In Missoula, Fiedler might be recalled equally well for his Montana; or the End of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in which he offers his infamous description — some might read indictment — of the Montana face.
In the lengthy The Novel and America, Fiedler exhibits the same learned fascination evident in other pieces, and he offers these insights: The American writer inhabits a country at once the dream of Europe and a fact of history; he lives on the last horizon of an endlessly retreating vision of innocence — on the frontier, which is to say the margin where the theory of original goodness and the fact of original sin come face to face. To express this . . . and to live by it in a society in which, since the decline of orthodox Puritanism, optimism has become the chief effective religion, is a complex and difficult task.
Now the Distinguished Samuel Clemens Professor of English at the University of Buffalo —what would Mark Twain say? — and an associate fellow at Yale University, Fiedler has been the recipient of many honors, including time as a Fulbright scholar, a Guggenheim fellow, and judge for the National Book Awards. He made chutzpah a literary form! declares his publisher on the back cover of this latest offering. Few would argue.
Carl Mix, father of five and the patriarch of J. Robert Lennons second novel, enjoys a phenomenal following for his comic strip, the Family Funnies. But after years of idealizing his familys foibles for his daily single frame, Carl dies suddenly at his drawing table. The terms of his last will and testament catapult his adult children into another world that finds them examining the legacy of their childhood and finally becoming a family to one another.
Tim, who is struggling to become an artist, inherits only the possibility of following in his fathers footsteps. To meet the terms of the will he must produce a weeks worth of Family Funnies within three months time. As Tim learns his new trade, complications arise and his inheritance is challenged. The story of his response is by turns funny and sad; much more shifts in Tims life than his occupation.
Early on in his new endeavors, Tims editor, Susan, invites him to New York for lunch at her favorite Chinese restaurant. Delicious Duck was the skinniest restaurant I had ever seen. It was wide enough to accommodate only one long row of tables jammed up against the south wall; the maximum seating for any of them was three people. This row stretched all the way to the back of the place, which, once my eyes adjusted to the dim, proved to be another entrance, an entire city block away. The kitchen was in a room off this long hallway. I loved it. I found Susan munching a fortune cookie at a table near the kitchen doors.
I hope you dont mind, she said. I like watching them come in and out. Susans contagious engagement with life is only one element of Tims unexpected legacy in this entertaining and thoughtful novel.
The Heartsong of Charging Elk
The nineteenth-century landscape of James Welchs fifth novel encompasses much more than the Black Hills of Dakota and the French seaport of Marseilles. The chambers of the human heart and the recesses of the mind are likewise searched out and mapped in this ambitious and engaging story.
Charging Elk is a young Oglala man who leaves his parents and friends behind to join the European tour of Buffalo Bills Wild West Show. Charging Elks pride in his feats of horsemanship is such that he ignores a serious illness only to collapse during a performance. By the time he wakes in a Marseilles hospital the Wild West Show has departed for Italy and left him behind.
The mix of fear, cruelty, sympathy and bureaucratic bungling that greets Charging Elk in the Republic of France is tempered by the French publics fascination with the exotic natives of North America — the same fascination that prompted Buffalo Bill to launch his tour.
In the midst of this massive geographical and cultural displacement, Charging Elk continues to dream of his home in the Black Hills. He sees the strangers who surround him through the powerful lens of his own spiritual tradition — recognizing a kind heart in a benefactors wife and the evil spirit of a siyoko in a local restaurant owner. Most importantly, he never loses his reverence for the gift of life — a reverence that sees him through the cruelest twists a sojourn in a foreign land can bring. Once, when contemplating the possibility of his own imminent death, he determines to make his own prayers when the time came. But his prayers would be of thanks for having lived on this earth . . . .
This spirit of gratitude allows him to continually re-invent his life as he takes his place among the immigrant population of France. Charging Elk had reached his apartment building in the Panier. It was on the Rue des Cordelles, a narrow street which buzzed with many tongues, mostly North African and Levantine. Children played in the street until late at night, sometimes keeping him awake. But more often than not he found the laughter, the squeals, the cries, the barking dogs somehow comforting, as though the constant flurry of noise proved that he was not really alone.
Charging Elk inhabits all the worlds James Welch has created for him. He lives expectantly and hopefully in them all until an ultimate homecoming blends his history, his spirit and his future into one.
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