Wiggins (Evidence of Things Unseen, 2003, etc.) takes on real-life American photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis.
The author braids the stories of Curtis, whose photos of Native Americans and the western landscape shaped the region’s mythology; his long-suffering wife, Clara; and a present-day writer, “Marianne Wiggins,” who’s summoned to a Las Vegas hospital to see the dying “father” whom she knows to be an imposter because her dad hanged himself decades earlier. Incorporated into the text are photographic images taken by the mysterious, obsessive Curtis, famed for his pictures of grave, brooding Indians posed in ceremonial dress—funeral portraits of a dying race, he called them. Especially poignant is the plight of Clara, who manages the household and raises their children virtually alone (the youngest goes 18 years without seeing her father). Yet when she finally sues for divorce, the children side with Curtis, choosing the mythical god over the disciplinarian. Wiggins intercuts the story of the writer/narrator's own absent father. The novel can seem diffuse—neither storyline is explored as fully as it might be—but the stratagem pays off in bravura passages like the one in which Wiggins riffs her way from ethnic roadside restaurants to gods of Greek myth to the American cult of celebrity…and in the process forges an emotional link between narrative lines.
An ambitious, lively work, though its fragments don't coalesce perfectly.