Southwestern Collage

Swain Wolfe blends archeology and adventure with lively characters in his latest work.

So the novelist's got a free-flying rental Taurus. He's got an archeology fund-raiser, a video crew, a Jacques Derrida speak-alike, a couple of desperados named Raw Bones and Rat, an Indian who paints biker and Pope John Paul II kachinas.

He adds a nubile, thousand-year-old extinct Cloud Dancer, throws them together in new-age New Mexico, and what does he serve up? A never-a-dull-moment, made-for-the-screen novel deconstructing before your very eyes.

The jumble of characters, mythologies, perspectives and ideas that constitutes The Parrot Trainer becomes its own little postmodern collage. That novelist Swain Wolfe (The Woman Who Lives in the Earth, The Lake Dreams the Sky; and is that his real name?) was formerly a documentary filmmaker underscores a certain "po-mo" blurring of genres.

The Parrot Trainer opens in a canyon outside Silverado, N.M. Former antiquities dealer and relic-counterfeiter Jack Miller looks up just as a car flies off a cliff. When he reaches the scene, he finds a dead anthropologist and a collection of notes and drawings suggesting the anthropologist had discovered an unknown cliff dwelling. Jack makes his way to the dwelling; he's sworn off raiding archeological sites, but he can't resist pocketing a prehistoric bowl with the image of a masked female figure with a parrot. Clambering down the cliff face, he is stung by some sort of super scorpion. He begins hallucinating, and--by the time he's reached home--the bowl figure is not only talking to him, but has materialized to life-size.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lucy Perelli, in Albuquerque--ostensibly to raise money for an archeology-protection foundation but also dispatched by lover Philip Sachs to chase down a potentially career-salvaging frozen prehistoric guy--gives a speech in which she deprecates French social relativist Henri Bashé who--life's about random coincidences--happens to be in the audience on his Deconstructing America tour. Video-maker Anita, with her cowboy cameraman Billy, ropes Lucy into their Bashé project, and the plot lurches forward once Henri's slept through his hangover.

The action of The Parrot Trainer follows Lucy, Henri and the crew touring pueblo ruins, seeking out Jack Miller and running from bad guys--with Lucy creating a little personal and professional friction between Jack and Philip.

Elevated tone, profound characterization or breast-clutching drama is not what you'd go to this book for; it's a sort of magical-realist-dusted archeology-adventure spoof that tickles ideas. Even Wolfe's book jacket photo--face half-angled away, smiling knowingly to the camera--suggests a flippant conspiracy of the ironic.

Wolfe toys with questions related to native cultures: Who and how one defines them; who speaks for them, who "owns" them, what happens when they bump up against other cultures; what ethical issues arise when artifacts and scientific/historical pursuits become commodified in the marketplace and in the academic arena? Indian painter Kills The Deer Burnum recognizes "postcard potential," for example, when a policeman enters his line of vision outside Lucy's meeting: He can visualize painting a yellow-vested cop-kachina floating in a clouded blue sky; "formal and ironic, yet radiant in mythological meaning." Later, Kills The Deer will long to escape Anglo society and get back to the reservation, but acknowledges ruefully that reservation life presents its own set of conflicts.

The as-yet-unannounced discovery of a frozen body predating the earliest North American human sets Jack and Philip up in opposition to one another. Jack has been inclined to let the body rest undisturbed in the cave he and a fishing buddy had stumbled on a couple of decades before; Philip is in a hot race to publish it to support his besieged migratory theory. That its discovery would only once again set native peoples and ancestral rights up against the academics and scientific rights is another issue. Henri ("I am studying the absorption and consumption of cultural cannibalism--the manner in which one culture absorbs another ... ") has no kind words for the archeologist.

Wolfe pastes snippets of other themes onto The Parrot Trainer: the nature of obsession--of collectors, in particular; the nature of fakes; the relativity/unknowability of truth; the value of constructed realities or versions of realities--Lucy's job changing from troweling through archeological sites to tending a financial bureaucracy and the video crew's as capturing a world through the lens and changing it in the editing process; Willow, the rain dancer--as extension or not of Jack's imagination.

For as insouciant an approach The Parrot Trainer takes, it's surprisingly conscientiously researched. And Wolfe rests a light thumb on the Indian side of his balance of the deconstructionist's against the pueblo dwellers' version of the cycles of life. All in all, it's fast, it's fun and it's fictionally factual: an entertainingly informative verbal road trip.

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