This isn’t my type of book–there’s a plot, of sorts, but really the book is Jonny by way of Hunter S. Thompson, an analogy that I am forced to make because, as I noted, stream-of-consciousness/flashback-and-how-the-past-relates-to-the-future books aren’t really my jam and so I don’t know many of them.
For all that I never found myself fully enmeshed in this novel, I never found myself checking out either, which is more than I can say for many books that are “my” sort of reads. Whitehead does an excellent job at seizing your attention and keeping it throughout, skipping from vignette to vignette (all are the length of a chapter, and chapters vary in length but are never very long) with a sort of frenetic energy that does justice to the (a?) self-styled “NDN glitter princess” of the Peguis First Nation (phrase in quotes not to cast aspersions on the title, but to indicate that it is a quote).
The loose plot is thus: Jonny has seven days to earn enough money to return to the reservation where he grew up, to attend the funeral of a stepfather for whom he has conflicted feelings. Indeed, he has many feelings, about his childhood and his sexuality and his gender identity and his relationship with Tias (his on-and-off something) and his kokum (grandmother), and they all vie for attention with the business of making money to get home.
There’s a lot to unpack within the walls of Whitehead’s novel, so I’ll taper this review to one that I think holds particular poignancy during this time of COVID: Jonny’s kokum, and all that she represents for both him and the community at large.
No one has been spared the devastation of COVID-19, but for the Indigenous communities of the U.S. (in particular, I’ll say, because those are the stories that I encounter) the uneven burden of death which fell on the elderly had the doubly deadly effect of severing ties to cultural and historical wisdom. Kokum’s entire life is a teaching, her very way of moving through the world an homage and living testament to an entire people whose identity the Canadian government tried to systematically and brutally stamp out. Her death, which occurs prior to the novel’s start, creates a tear in the fabric of the Peguis nation itself.
Jonny is searching for meaning and acceptance and belonging in a world that fetishizes and willfully misunderstands and seeks to remain ignorant of the truth of the lands we occupy. The connection with his kokum, the lessons she teaches him and the small cultural elements she embodies in every day life…I’m grasping for words to describe the feeling, but every time she would show up in a page was a sigh of relief, a knowledge that Jonny (and the reader) could exhale and be comforted both physically and emotionally.
I’m not centering my experience, but from the smaller seed of it (I’m from a different culture, and I too lean heavily on the oral wisdom of my (female) elders to learn how to be of my culture) came the ability to understand the grief-tree of Jonny’s loss. That which he (and others) were able to learn from Kokum is the sum total of their understanding of their culture. Without it, of course, they will adapt and learn how to merge their experiences with the experiences of their elders, but they’re starting from a pot of knowledge that can no more expand.