Ishi, et al



I read in spurts, and I can be a restless reader, so I tend to have a few books on the go at any given time. Currently I am reading three books, having just finished Ishi, in Two Worlds, by Theodora Kroeber, the seminal story of America’s last “wild” Indian. Even though I am a child of the sixties, I never got around to reading the book until this summer. I’m sure most of your know the story – about the last of the Yahi tribe, who had held out for many years in the hills above Chico, CA, until one day in 1911, many years after all the Indians were presumed to have been finally exterminated, a lone Indian appeared at the back of a remote butcher shed, exhausted and scared. They took him to San Francisco, where he lived in a museum, and taught the white folk all about the ways of the savage. Everybody loved him and they were sad when he died of tuberculosis in 1916.

Then I heard a podcast from Australia’s Radio National program All in the Mind, about a book written by an American anthropologist, Orin Starn, entitled Ishi’s Brain. Starn’s book, written in 2004, is a great companion piece to Kroeber’s 1960 book on Ishi. Starn’s writing is clear and descriptive, while Kroeber’s is ornate and, as it turns out, somewhat dishonest. The original Ishi story, as it appeared in 1960, can be seen as a romanticized product of its times. In it, Ishi is portrayed as the noble savage. His story is the precursor to all things Kevin Costner, an oversimplified attempt to expiate white guilt. Starn’s book attempts to set the record straight, and even chronicles the betrayal of Ishi by his white friends, who, contrary to Ishi’s wishes, allowed an autopsy of Ishi when he died, and even surreptitiously removed his brain to be pickled and sent to the Smithsonian! It’s part detective story, part social history, part anthropological corrective, and entirely readable. I strongly recommend it.

Having traveled in Micronesia myself, I enjoy a good read about Pacific travels, so I recently picked up Passage to Torres Strait, by Miles Hordern (2005). It’s not that great. Hordern is a good writer, but a lousy storyteller. He has obviously read Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania, and Tony Horwitz’ Blue Latitudes, two excellent books on the topic, and attempted (like them) to blend history and personal narrative. But the damn book doesn’t hold together because Hordern doesn’t know how to make the simple transitions between events work. Read Theroux or Horwitz instead. Or Eric Hansen, (The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer) who is another gifted Pacific travel writer .

Bullet Park

Bullet Park

Lastly, I am reading “Bullet Park”, by John Cheever (1967). What can you say about Cheever that hasn’t already been said? OK, here goes: if Garrison Keilor were a deeply melancholic alcoholic with repressed homosexual tendencies, he would be John Cheever. It’s Americana through a glass darkly. I started the book yesterday and I will finish it today. I can’t put it down. I have read most of Cheever, and it’s just the thing for this time of year. It’s sad, beautiful, elegiac, funny, and true. It chronicles the dissipation of an unsustainable lifestyle. It’s set in the suburbs, and it’s a glimpse into a time that I remember vaguely – that time when it was still possible to just about remember what it was like to not be completely immersed in consumer culture. Here’s a quote:

“The Ridleys were a couple who brought to the hallowed institution of holy matrimony a definitely commercial quality as if to marry and conceive, rear and educate children was like the manufacture and merchandising of some useful product produced in competition with other manufacturers. They were not George and Helen Ridley. They were “The Ridleys.” One felt that they might have incorporated and sold shares in their destiny over the counter. “The Ridleys” was painted on the door of their station wagon. There was a sign saying “The Ridleys” at the foot of their driveway. In their house, matchbooks, coasters and napkins were all marked with their name. They presented their handsome children to their guests with the air of salesmen pointing out the merits of a new car in a showroom. The lusts, griefs exaltations and shabby worries of a marriage never seemed to have marred the efficiency of their organization. One felt that they probably had branch offices and a staff of salesmen on the road.”

Of course, this seems like broad caricature, and it is, but it’s a set piece in the novel which serves as a springboard to deeper mysteries and profound observations on the ephemeral and fragile nature of what we assume to be our well maintained lives. Cheever links his characters to the cycles of nature, but only to show how far they have diverged from what really matters. They long for meaning, but don’t find it. Nowadays we labor under the “accountability” paradigm: No Child Left Behind, Work Harder, Work Longer, Compete Globally. We’ve take it for normal. We need to read Cheever and see how we got into this mess. The heart has its reasons of which the bean counters know nothing.


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