In the past few weeks, I have been binging on Louise Erdrich’s novels.
(Erdrich is the acclaimed Ojibwe author of so many books I can’t keep track–maybe 16 novels? If you are unfamiliar with her work, here is a review of her latest novel by the New York Times. It serves as a good introduction to her work.)
These are the novels I have recently read (or re-read):
- Love Medicine (1984)
- Tracks (1988)
- The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
- The Plague of Doves (2008)
- The Round House (2012)
Several years ago, I also read her Crown of Columbus, and I am now starting to read her Bingo Palace (1994).
It would be an understatement to say that I am a fan of her work. The woman is a literary goddess. Each of her novels creates a world unto itself. However, most of them are connected to each other as well. She focuses on a small (fictional) area of North Dakota and many of the same families are featured in each work. In terms of her style, each work is unique. Nonetheless, certain themes and stylistic traits recur throughout her work. Taken together, the combination of these traits add up to a distinct Erdrich voice or “trademark.”
In this short series, I want to focus on a few elements of her voice, the things that mark her as distinct. Today I am focusing on her sense of humor. In general, I would not classify Erdrich as a comic writer. Taken as a whole, her fiction veers more towards the lyrical, the tragic, or even magical. However, her vision is consistently punctuated with episodes of broad comedy. Often the comedy is physical, even slapstick. The humor provides some relief from the sadness of much of her writing, but it also expresses her view of the world—one in which the tragic and the comic cannot be neatly separated.
One example of trademark Erdrich humor can be seen in her first novel, Love Medicine. In this work, Lipsha Morrissey accidentally walks in on his grandfather having an adulterous tryst in the laundry room at the senior center with his old flame, Lulu Lamartine. In the context of the entire work, Grandfather Nector Kashpaw’s yearning for Lulu is portrayed as poignant, sad, touching. In this particular scene, though, the perspective is one of broad comedy:
“There they were. And he was really loving her up good, boy, and she was going hell for leather. Sheets was flapping on the lines above, and washcloths, pillowcase, shirts was also flying through the air, for they was trying to clear out a place for themselves in a high-heaped but shallow laundry cart. The washers and dryers was all on, chock full of quarters, shaking and moaning.” (196)
This was an awkward scene for Lipsha to witness, to say the least. But the awkwardness turns to hilarity when a wig is added to the equation:
“The Lamartine wore a big curly light-brown wig. Looked like one of them squeaky little white-people dogs. Poodles they call them. Anyway, that wig is what saved us from the worse. . . . Turned out, though, in the heat of the clinch, as I was trying to avert my eyes you see, the Lamartine’s curly wig jumped off her head. And if you ever been in the midst of something and had a big change like that occur in the someone, you can’t help know how it devastates your basic urges. Not only that, but her wig was almost with a life of its own. Grandpa’s eyes were bugging at the change already, and swear to God if the thing didn’t rear up and pop him in the face like it was going to start something. He scrambled up, Grandpa did, and the Lamartine jumped up after him all addled-looking. They just stared at each other, huffing and puffing, with quizzical expressions.” (197)
This sort of broad comedy intermingles with scenes of great sadness and even tragedy throughout her works. We can see another example of her slapstick humor in her 2012 novel The Round House. This novel focuses on the rape and attempted murder of the narrator’s mother (Geraldine). The perpetrator is known, but cannot be punished by the legal system because of complex and blatantly unjust issues of jurisdiction on Native reservations. Not surprisingly, the overall tone of this novel is serious, even grim. Still, Erdrich manages to interject scenes of pure slapstick, such as this one, in which a teenage boy named Cappy confesses to a Catholic priest that he has been having sex with his girlfriend—in the church basement. The confession does not go as well as expected though. Father Travis, an ex-Marine, was in excellent physical condition and had a temper. Rather than forgiving Cappy, he explodes in anger and starts chasing him:
“There were arcane sounds—the slide of the priest’s window, the whispering back and forth—then the explosion. Father Travis burst from the wooden door of the confessional and would have caught Cappy if he hadn’t rolled out from under the curtain and half crawled, half scrambled along the pew. Father ran back, blocking the exit, but already Cappy had sprung past us, hurdling the pew toward the front of the church, landing on the seats with each bound in a breathtaking series of vaulting leaps that took him nearly to the altar.” (232)
The ensuing chase scene lasts for three full pages of slapstick adventure reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.
“Cappy had those good shoes, but so, I noticed, did Father Travis. He wasn’t running in sober clerical blacks but had perhaps been playing basketball or jogging before he dropped in to hear confessions. The two sprinted hotly down the dusty gravel road that led from the church into town. Cappy boldly crossed the highway and Father Travis followed. Cappy cut through yards he knew well and disappeared. But even in his cassock, which he’d hoisted and tucked into his belt, Father Travis was right behind him heading toward the Dead Custer Bar and Whitey’s gas station. We marveled at Father’s pale thick-muscled calves blurring in the sun.” (233)
I am not a Catholic, but I am pretty sure that’s not how confession is supposed to work.
Certainly, Erdrich is not the only writer who combines humor and tragedy. Many southern writers, for example, are famed for their tragic-comic vision. William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor come to mind. I think Erdrich’s humor is particularly broad, even cartoonish. The combination of this slapstick humor with serious, even tragic, themes is one of the more striking elements of Erdrich’s voice.
I will discuss other elements of her voice in future posts. Stay tuned!