A mixed bag of essays by the Nez Perce writer on Native American literature, academic life, and other intellectual topics.
Penn (English/Michigan State Univ.; All My Sins Are Relatives, 1995, etc.) does honor to the trickster characters Rabbit, Frog, and Coyote with these broadsides, which range from highly personal memoirs to formal, sometimes stilted literary analyses, which make use of sometimes simultaneous, sometimes conflicting voices; ego, superego, and alter ego all have a chance to speak, and they can make quite a din. At their best, the essays punch current notions of political correctness and academic protocol square in the chops, as Penn counts coup on stuffy deans, rad-lib separatists, guilty white liberals, conservative columnists (especially the hapless George Will), and semiliterate undergrads. Penn wreaks havoc with a smile or a sneer, as when he twits the dominant culture for ennobling all Indians, forgetting that there are degrees of quality and sophistication to differentiate the work of, say, James Welch from, say, Sherman Alexie, and when he repudiates postmodern approaches to literature (“in order to have the ‘post-modern,’ one needs a foreshortened sense of time and importance. . . . [T]he price for seeing this way, for aspiring to and even achieving this narrowed depth, is boredom”). At their worst, the essays fall into the expected Indians/good honkies/bad cant (“what do you call a white Christian who pretends to accede to the Ten Commandments and yet lusts after power and closeted fellatio with adolescent girls or who kills directly or indirectly every day”), a scattershot approach that lowers the average. Still, it’s an entertainment to watch Penn as he escapes being pinned down, taking up apparently contradictory positions—and even putting in a mild good word for George Armstrong Custer—just for the fun of it all, making friends and foes alike sweat a little.
Penn has emerged as an important presence on the Native American literary front, and this collection does a generally good job of showing why that should be so.