There's some sort of paradox in this new novel's notion of a group of Navajos—a people famously averse to trucking with the dead—playing "death metal" rock music. As there is in the title's contradictory, punning notion of "living decay."
To those notions, add images of Indian toddlers with water-spout ponytails, skillet-wielding drunken cattle-rustlers, glorious Monument Valley sunrises and head-bangers in mosh pits, and you have a sense of the stew of contemporary reservation life that Warren Perkins serves up in his affecting new novel.
Putrefaction Live opens with James Claw, 24 and fed up with his girlfriend and his dead-end job, fleeing Flagstaff to regroup at his family's ranch near Ganado on the Navajo reservation. Son of an Anglo father and Navajo mother, James spent his childhood on the reservation, but he harbors conflicted feelings about the place. On one hand, the ranch and geography offer a timelessness and freshness that could help blow out the bar-scene smoke and attitude he'd acquired in Flagstaff. On the other, the reservation and town carry memories of childhood rejection (for being half white) and of the murder of a close friend.
James has few driving ambitions, but he aspires to one thing: assembling a band to play rock music. To that end, he goes to town to visit old his high school and music buddy Nolan, where he runs into Angie, whom he'd known since elementary school. Now married and the mother of two, Angie is still attractive. Her husband is off in the military, so Angie—along with Nolan—becomes James' social set, and part of Perkins' action.
This novel, by Flagstaff physician Warren Perkins, might suffer a few digs in a fiction-writing workshop, but its appeals well outweigh its deficiencies.
For one thing, what Perkins creates feels authentic. He paints Navajo culture with respect, affection and humor, but he doesn't airbrush it. Sprinkling the text with Navajo words and phrases, he includes conventions of social interaction. (Custom would dictate that James call Angie "auntie"; she, him, "son.") Perkins observes wryly that the grounds around a liquor store near Gallup is called "Navajo Beach," for the number of passed-out folks who could be found there.
He also creates a convincing sense of a musician, with knowledgeable descriptions of chord progressions, thematic development and "sleep composing."
A major theme in the novel is the idea of the colonization of native lands, but Perkins pulls off "political" without polemics. After a short, unsuccessful venture in the booze- and drug-distribution field, for example, James takes a job with the U.S. National Park Service, leading tours at the historic Hubbell Trading Post. He initially delivers the government-issue view of history, but as tourists' questions get more far-fetched (how closely related are Navajos to Chinese?), and misconceptions more outrageous (according to the Book of Mormon, Navajos were a tribe kicked out of Israel), James begins doing a little research—and maturing—on his own.
Perkins' plot development is a little sketchier.
The primary plotline is driven by James' struggle to find meaning and love in life, and follows a natural path. But Perkins also introduces side- or subplots to which he is not always as faithful. In one chapter, Nolan, who's been exhibiting increasingly self-destructive behavior, disappears after an alcohol-fueled concert frenzy in Phoenix. The next chapter changes scene, and we never return to the Phoenix action. Nolan just shows up again later. Likewise, what should have been the climactic moment of the novel is told in flashback—after we know the outcome of the suspenseful scene.
That said, the foray into the world of James, Angie, Nolan, their collection of Navajo toddlers and Max, James' cowboy Indian cousin, is well worth the read. Perkins' Four Corners descriptions are vivid; his narrator's voice is inviting; his cultural insights are rich; and he's painted a character we care about in the nonsmiling, black-T-shirted, horn-sign-throwing death-metal musician who can round up cows and quote Thomas Jefferson on keeping the Indians' history away from the Indians.
Oh, and then there's the final paradox of the image of this Navajo death-metal musician heading off to his day job in his U.S. National Park Service uniform with its Smokey Bear hat.
But James weighs in on that for us. Checking himself out in a Park Service mirror, he says, "I see by your outfit that you are an asshole."
Gotta love him.