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Smoked Signals

Louise Erdrich's long-running tale of Native American life on the North Dakota plains builds to a climax in her latest novel -- but the payoff never comes.

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"Oh, for a taste of nice fresh heart!" a talking dog cries toward the end of Louise Erdrich's big new novel; by the time I'd got that far into this book, I couldn't help thinking the very same thing. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is the latest in a series of novels about the inhabitants -- Ojibwe Indians, half bloods, white men descended from French traders -- of an Indian reservation in Argos, North Dakota, a place not unlike the one in which Erdrich herself, who is half Native American, grew up. There's no denying that her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, had something authentic and colorful and distinctive about it -- it was clearly one of those first novels that had been brewing for a while, and, as with many first novels, you felt the author's urgency. But despite the author's much-touted "fiercely lyrical" writing, the subsequent novels about Argos and its eccentric and tragedy-prone families -- books including but by no means limited to The Beet Queen (1986), Tracks (1988), and The Bingo Palace (1994) -- are beginning to feel more like a franchise than a serious literary undertaking. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is the clearest demonstration yet that time has run out for the Kashpaws, Morrisseys, Lazarres, and Puyats, whose indifferently linked (and told) stories, stretching over nine decades, are meant to fill us with all the big novelistic emotions; but the only thing that's likely to make you feel good is the promise implicit in the title.

In The Last Report, Erdrich fills out some old story lines and provides new perspectives on characters whom you may already know: Nanapush, the wise and refreshingly salacious old Indian who, in the face of the white man's erosion of Indian culture, remains the guardian of old traditions and old knowledge; the mad Pauline Puyat, who, as Sister Leopolda, is subject to violent religious experiences, to say nothing of violent acts; the many-wived head of the Kashpaw clan; the beauteous and seductive Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight sons and one daughter, all by different fathers; and many others.

Their lives are observed, and narrated, by an outsider: Father Damien Modeste, a missionary Catholic priest who arrives at Argos in the early years of the century. The report to which the title alludes is the last of many that Modeste has been faithfully sending to the Vatican; although the miracles they summarize are ostensibly performed by Leopolda, whose candidacy for sainthood is being evaluated by the Vatican as the novel begins, we learn of some other surprises as well. Not least of these -- I swear I'm not giving away anything; this is no Crying Game -- is that Damien is actually a woman.

Agnes/Damien's secret identity and the ongoing moral crisis it creates is meant to provide The Last Report with a meaningful narrative frame, but it's really just a gimmick. Gender, deception, concealment -- none of these is ever really linked in a profound way to the numerous stories you get here; if Father Damien had been a man all along, the novel wouldn't be any different. (There's curiously little suspense as to whether Agnes will be found out; when she does spend a night of ecstasy with a visiting priest -- he's relieved to find out that he's fornicating with a woman rather than another man -- the issue of her true gender, to say nothing of the mechanics of her concealment, never even comes up.) I couldn't help feeling that what really made Father Damien interesting to Erdrich was his/her immense longevity, which allows the author to cram a lot of stories in -- even if the elaborately intertwined tales, involving everything from child abuse to alcoholism to a rather novel murder (strangulation with a rosary) to Nanapush's post-mortem erections, often don't seem to have much of a relation to each other. In her earlier (and shorter) books, Erdrich was clearly preoccupied with the nature of storytelling, with memory and loss, and the disappearance of Indian culture. In the new book, she lobs slogans rather than themes at you. It may be true that "the void left in the passing of sacred traditional knowledge was filled, quite simply, with the quick ease of alcohol," but in a serious novel this insight ought to arise from what's narrated, not summed up for you like the chapter heading in a history textbook.

I suppose there is a punch line of sorts: The "real" miracles performed in Argos all those years weren't those involving Leopolda's stigmata or her miraculous healings, but the day-to-day miracle of the way in which "Father Damien" stood by his flock. But the intended emotional climaxes in the book's finale don't have impact -- possibly because there's no sustained narrative to be the climax of. If you've read about Erdrich's personal traumas in the past few years -- her estranged husband, the writer Michael Dorris, committed suicide in 1997 after being accused of sexually abusing one or more of the couple's three daughters -- it's not hard to imagine why the author might have wanted to write a great epic involving not one but several instances of sexual abuse, one that ended on a note of grace and redemption. But real epics are epic by virtue of more than length, and length, alas, is mostly what you get here.

Mostly, but not all. A sure sign of a writer in trouble is overwriting. From the start, Erdrich has been much -- too much, I think -- praised for her "intensely lyrical" prose; but while there's no arguing that her sentences could have satisfying impact in the early books ("The sun was hot and heavy as a hand on my back"), there's always been a troubling inability to let well enough alone, a tendency to make every little thing momentously symbolic. Because there's little else holding the new book together -- a plot, for instance -- you notice the artiness all the more. I have no idea what it means for something to be "mightily drifting" or "violently flat," and I doubt whether Erdrich does, either; like far too much in this novel (not least, that faux-magical-realist talking devil-dog), you suspect it's there just because it sounds fancy. This, plus an annoying tendency to narrative portentousness -- far too many sections either begin or end with sentences like "for he would be the one" -- accompany some unforgivable descents into bona fide Hallmarkisms. "Thus," reads the high point of one chapter, "was her salvation composed of the very great and very small. The vast comfort of a God who comforted her in a language other than her own. The bead of life. The gold orange of washed carrots and the taste of salt."

As I read that bit, I was reminded of something, and if it took me a while to realize what that thing was, it's because it came not from the world of literature but from the world of movies: an ad for Chocolat, another recent "artistic" product that pretends to be about the most profound human experiences while resorting to both the shorthand language and Rorschach-y strategies of advertising in order to achieve its sentimental effects. However original Erdrich's treatment of Native American life may have been at the beginning, the flaccid prose, indifferent construction, and thematic exhaustion you sense in her latest report from the reservation suggest that perhaps it ought to be the last.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
By Louise Erdrich.
HarperCollins. 361 pages; $26.


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