Review: House Made of Dawn

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House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1968)

I’m trying to read all some of the Pulitzer winners; this is one.

Momaday is a Kiowa, and this short book is very Native American. I don’t know if a book could have been “Native American” before the homogenization of Native Americans thru movies, historical revisionism, pow-wow culture, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but today there is a Native American way, and even a Native American accent, which I’ve found everywhere from the Creek of Florida, to the Iroqouis of New York, to the Hopi in New Mexico.

The book is in four parts, and four is the number of wholeness to the Navajo (and perhaps to the Kiowa as well), just as three is to whites. More “Indian”, though, is the reluctance to exclude or explain thing.

I remember trying to learn to make blowgun darts from an old Creek in Georgia. I told him the seed-fluff I was using for fins was too tangled, and he turned his back on me and started doing something. I was angry until I noticed he was making a tool to straighten them. He was trying to solve my problem; he just didn’t want to explain in words.

Momaday uses lots of words, but in the Indian way, of observing and pointing things out, rather than the “white man” way, of categorizing and summarizing. By the end of the novel, I wanted some white man words.

Realist, modernist, and especially post-modernist writing assumes that there is something unsavory about authorial intent, and that the job of the novelist is to record what is there. Along those same lines, this book is not an instantiation or proof of a theme, but a gestalt, and so it moves in expanding circles, from Abel, to his father, to the white woman who fucks him, to the priest who doesn’t realize he wants to fuck the woman, to the dead priest whose diary that priest reads.

But can a novel work simply by reporting lifelike events, and trusting there is something worthwhile in them? No. If so, we would live life, or perhaps read newspapers, instead of reading novels. The author must know, or at least sense, some themes.

Are these stories connected thematically? Most of the narrators want something from Abel, or from the Native Americans. Is that important? No commentator seems to think so, and I don’t think so. Why are Father Olguin, Angela, and the other priest in the story? They have no narratively-significant connection to anything else in the story, yet take a third of the book. Possibly they are to illustrate other ways of failing to connect with others. The priest does not acknowledge his own desire and deliberately isolates himself; Angela desires Abel and has him sexually, yet fails completely to touch or understand him in the way that she wants to.

Many people say the story is about Abel’s inability to connect with either the Kiowa or the city. But there is less than one paragraph in the entire book about Abel’s difficulty going back to the reservation after prison. If the story were about Abel’s alienation from his own people, it would have to have something in it about why Abel is alienated from his own people, but it doesn’t. If it is supposed to make a general point about the Native American condition of alienation from modern society, it would have to make a better case for why Abel is alienated from the city than the fact that he killed somebody and so is hassled by parole officers and social workers. Most Native Americans haven’t killed anybody lately.

This book would have made a good series of poems, or one good short story. But it isn’t a novel, unless I’m missing the story.

Stylistically, it is equal parts exhilarating and infuriating. You’re either going to love or hate this stuff:

In the early morning the land lay huge and sluggish, discernible only as a whole, with nothing in relief except its own sheer, brilliant margin as far away as the eye could see, and beyond that the nothingness of the sky. Silence lay like water on the land, and even the frenzy of the dogs below was feeble and a long time in finding the ear.

It’s beautiful for one paragraph, but becomes a slog when this goes on for pages. Perhaps a fifth of the novel is description like this. When Momaday wants to show how a character feels, it’s hardcore show-don’t-tell:

Something there struck beneath the level of his weariness, struck and took hold in his hearing like the cry of a small creature–a field mouse or a young rabbit. Evening gives motion to the air, and the long blades of corn careen and collide, and there is always at dusk the rustling of leaves that settle into night. But was it that? All day his mind had wandered over the past, habitually, beyond control and even the least notion of control, but his thoughts had been by some slight strand of attention anchored to his work. The steady repetition of his backward steps — the flash of the hoe and the sure advance of the brown water after it – had been a small reality from which his mind must venture and return. But now, at the end of long exertion, his age and body let go of the mind, and he was suddenly conscious of some alien presence close at hand. And he knew as suddenly, too, that it had been there for a long time, not approaching, but impending for minutes, and even hours, upon the air and the growth and the land around. He held his breath and listened. His ears rang with weariness; beyond that there was nothing save the soft sound of water and wind and, somewhere among the farthest rows, the momentary scuffle of a quail; then the low whistle and blowing of the mares in the adjacent field, reminding him of the time. But there was something else; something apart from these, not quite absorbed into the ordinary silence: an excitement of breathing in the instance just past, all ways immediate, irrevocable even now that it had ceased to be. He peered into the dark rows of corn from which no sound had come, in which no presence was. There was only the deep black wall of stocks and leaves, vibrating slowly upon his tired vision like water. He was too old to be afraid. His acknowledgment of the unknown was nothing more than a dull, intrinsic sadness, a vague desire to weep, for evil had long since found him out and knew who he was. He set a blessing upon the corn and took up his hoe. He shuffled out between the rows, towards the dim light at the edge of the cornfield.

I’ve read that four times now and still don’t know what it’s trying to say. I think I’d have given up if I hadn’t been stuck for five hours in an emergency room with nothing else to read.

Momaday has a poet’s eye for fine descriptions, but sometimes he will describe the smoke curling from the houses before he has told us that there are houses. He throws up a barrage of details about the land without telling you where you are, and you’ll have to read four paragraphs of similes about clouds and sunsets and hills before you realize you are in the same valley he has described three times already. And he has combined Faulkner’s substitution of puzzles (scenes out of chronological order, with unidentified narrators) for depth with the affected ungrammaticality we’ll see later in Cormac McCarthy. (A couple of the scenes cannot be attributed definitely to any character, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether a scene break indicates a new narrator, but that may be a device to suggest continuity beyond the individual.)

The characters are described similarly to the scenery: with poetic detail, yet in a way that often leaves me with no clear picture. There are two entire pages describing Abel’s fight to the death with the albino, which skillfully convey Abel’s physical feelings; but very little to tell us who the albino is, what history they had between them, or why they fought, and so we learn little about Abel from this dramatic central scene.

I think the Pulitzer committee chose the book for political reasons, but I don’t think they were wrong to do so. With great power comes great responsibility. This was the first well-known novel by a Native American; many others followed soon after. If you have the power to bring attention to the literary work of an entire race, then you ought to do that sometimes.

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