My hat is off to Stephen Graham Jones, because he is the kind of author that makes the frustrated writer inside every book reviewer cringe with self-doubt. The Fast Red Road - a Plainsong, Jones’s first novel, is the kind of debut that should cause critics and readers everywhere to stand up and take notice. It’s also the kind of debut that should drive wannabe writers to revise their copies of that crucial first manuscript over and over again, looking for the kind of power and majesty that they (by which I mean we) find in other newcomers. But don’t fear, aspirants at your keyboards, for Jones is already an established author with various short-story publication credits under his belt. Just sit back, hold on, and prepare to be moved at full-throttle V8 speed.
The Fast Red Road has at its heart a noble aim, which is nothing less than revisiting and reviewing the myth of the American West. In a world where Cadillacs, retirees, and golf courses have replaced the cowboys, Indians, and scrub-brush of our collective cultural images, such a task might be crucial to reconciling the gap between past and present—or it may just be a literary exercise. Or for Stephen Graham Jones, who is Blackfeet, it might be a way of rewiring the personal and the historical into the contemporary. Whatever the case, the result is brilliant.
It might be important, even significant, to note that this is a re-mythologizing of the American Southwest. The story takes place in the blacktop-scarred plains and deserts of Utah, Texas, and especially New Mexico (Arizona is mysteriously, almost deliberately, not a factor in this story). It is this southwestern region, calling to mind noir-ish films like Wild at Heart—images of driving classic boat cars with the white convertible top down, sunglasses on, and wind whipping through one’s hair, ancient gas stations with frightening pump jockeys, and small towns that house not ghosts but the undead. This is the hot and dry climate that Jones takes to task and exposes through a dark and haunted lens. The Southwest of The Fast Red Road is similar to Burroughs’s Tangier, a place filled with shady characters and a native magic that bends its inhabitants to the edge of reality. Space and time expand and contract like lungs breathing. Place means everything but is one of the most ineffable ingredients in this tale. It is a Southwest deadlocked into a cycle of repetitious history, where Jones’s characters attempt to break this loop of fate, while simultaneously that circular history is the thing that draws them to break free. It is a place of spirits, telepathy, and psychosis.
The plot centers around Pidgin, a young half-white, half-Indian man who is drawn back to his hometown of Clovis, New Mexico, where the only living relative who awaits his return is his uncle, Birdfinger, from whom Pidgin is determinedly estranged. Pidgin has come home for the burial of his father, except that Pidgin’s father, Birdfinger’s twin brother, has been dead for the last seven years, his body lying in a medical research facility being dissected and tested for mysterious physiognomy. And that’s not even when things start to get weird. The prologue, which doesn’t feature Pidgin at all, sets the strange tone for the novel, and in a telling way Pidgin walks into a story that is already on a runaway train headed for dementia.
Trying to summarize the plot is futile, as it would take up a space half as long as the (rather long) novel itself and wouldn’t make any sense. All a plot summary could leave one with is a distorted view of a distorted story. But there are things about this book that can be told, the things that work to make this essential reading for literature, fringe fiction, magical realism, myth, and postmodernism fans. Jones manages to grab readers by the short hairs and drag them down the Fast Red Road with him. He uses symbol, metaphor, puns, irony, allusion, illusion, and the macabre with such force that reading this book is a dizzy, vertiginous experience. At times Jones wraps symbol, foreshadowing, and re-shadowing around the reader’s eyes like a diaphanous black veil, wrapping tighter and tighter until the reader can no longer see for the blur. Pop culture becomes both metaphor and reality, until they overlap and bleed into one another. Beneath it all is the sense of supreme synchronicity, the interconnectedness of all things, and the mythological magic of Native Americans and modern-day physics, colliding, colluding, and refashioning experience to their self-same images.
But all the while, Jones keeps meaning just out of reach, both for the readers and the characters, with whom the reader increasingly identifies even as things become more blurred and confused. This essential element, this chasing after meaning and resolution, is what keeps the red road fast. As I was reading this book, the edges of my own reality seemed to blur and my everyday world seemed to follow the contours of Pidgin’s, where perception was increased and dramatically deceptive all at once. That is the true power of story at its best, to draw the reader into the world of the story just as the story inserts itself into the reader’s world. Whether or not Jones actively pursued this end, he shows himself to be powerfully capable of engineering it. As the book comes to a close, the force of the its momentum propels the tale past its conclusion. Meaning has never been fully achieved, symbols never completely deciphered, and as in real life, some of the essential questions at the heart of the text go unanswered. Whereas in many a standard novel these would be glaring faults, omissions that leave the reader dissatisfied and disappointed, in The Fast Red Road, this in the only possible ending, that there is none. Very, very few times have I ever had the desire to pick a book back up after turning the last page and immediately begin reading again. The Fast Red Road is one of those books.
Ultimately this book could, and should, propel Stephen Graham Jones into the national consciousness. The Fast Red Road is a moving experience in a none-too-common sense: it propels. Whether or not Jones succeeds in rewriting our real idea of the Southwest and infusing it with new myth with this novel is secondary. It is accomplished in the story, and that is all that matters.