Trite And True

If You're Thinking About Writing A Southwestern Novel, Don't.
By Tom Danehy

To Bury The Dead, by Brian Andrew Laird (St. Martin's).

Hardcover, $20.95.

Slots, by Ann Poyas (Book Creek).

Hardcover, $21.95.

IF YOU HELD a meeting for everybody who wants to be the next Tony Hillerman, you'd have to rent the TCC.

We live in a Southwestern "society" fairly obsessed with the idea of Native American history and culture as something which can be taken out for a spin or worn as an ornament. In a place where dream catchers hang from rear-view mirrors and Kokopelli adorns everything from coffee mugs to lawn furniture--imagine a set of Jesus Christ dinnerware!--it's obvious Indians are hot...this year.

But despite the cachet Native Americans are enjoying in many circles these days (none of which intersects the Governor's mansion), there's a thin line between treating native peoples with the respect they deserve and jumping on a way-too-crowded literary bandwagon.

I guess everyone at one time or another has read an enjoyable book and then daydreamed about writing his own best-seller. Hey, I've always wanted to write a Carl Hiaasen-like story about southern Arizona.

But then I remember the words of Algonquin Round Table member Robert Benchley, who said of exercise, "Every time I get the urge (to exercise), I lie down until the feeling passes." So, too, should some writers bent on copying their heroes.

Tony Hillerman is a phenomenon unto himself. He writes taut, thrilling mysteries, delicately set against the backdrop of the sprawling Navajo Reservation. What some people fail to realize is that he's a great mystery writer first and a cultural observer second. Who knows, his storytelling skills may even have something to do with the current pop culture trends. But his magic touch is not easily duplicated, nor, for that matter, often approached.

If imitation is the sincerest form of television, it's probably no less sincere in literary terms. If that's the case, there's a lot of sincerity floating around out there. So much so that two examples of it fell into my hands on the same day last week.

To Bury The Dead, by Brian Andrew Laird, and Ann Poyas' Slots are two earnest attempts to take a Hillerman-like look at southern Arizona's Tohono O'odham, with both falling well short of the mark.

Laird's is the better of the two, oddly enough because he stays closest to the Hillerman path. First-person hero Gray Napoleon (yes, that's his name) is a Vietnam Vet-turned-botanist who tools around southern Arizona in a Land Cruiser and knows all the seedy watering holes and undiscovered taquerias in his adopted home of Tucson.

While driving through the desert on the last leg of a most unpleasant journey, one which saw him drive to L.A. to retrieve the body of a Tohono O'odham friend of his for burial on tribal land, Napoleon stops to use the john and comes out to find the casket--body and all--has been snatched.

Napoleon returns to Tucson and sets out to find who would do such a thing, and why. The clock is ticking, because the longer the burial is delayed, the more disrespect is heaped on the deceased.

In this very thin book (with, alas, an equally thin plot), we learn Napoleon is a maverick living on the edge of society, a friend to the ever-noble Tohono O'odham, and the sometimes boyfriend to a gorgeous Apache woman lawyer. (At first I thought maybe Janet Pete was two-timing Jim Chee, but then I figured, hey, there must be thousands of beautiful, 30-ish Apache women lawyers out there.)

Napoleon runs afoul of the law, a strange Frenchwoman, some thugs, his girlfriend, and a mysterious rich guy who lives high in the Catalinas and lusts after some priceless gemstones which may or may not have had something to do with the building of San Xavier Mission.

Laird throws all this at us and then wraps things up in a clunky, uneven fashion that I guess is supposed to feel like real life, but instead is somewhat unsatisfying.

Most annoying about the book is the pacing. Mid-story, he'll stop to throw in some historical or geographical fact to educate the reader. I like that stuff, but he has to find a way to fold it into the story better. It's like, "I did all this research, so I'm going to make sure I put it all in the book."

I wouldn't mind reading another Gray Napoleon story. Laird has potential, but missed on this one.

As for Slots, let me just say it's a story about an ad agency woman who denied her Indian heritage most of her life, written by an ad agency woman who denied her Indian heritage most of her life. The story involves a militant uprising over slot machines and Indian gaming. There's a real evil Arizona governor and some sex scenes, nipples and everything. Other than that, however, ugh.

One note: If you want to read a wonderful book about the Tohono O'odham, pick up a copy of J.M. Hayes' The Grey Pilgrim, which offers a gripping look at a Native American conscientious objector during World War II, and the great lengths to which the government went to deal with him. This book's a few years old, but well worth the search. TW

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