I’m on a James Welch kick again, sorry. I just now finished reading his taut, powerful, & sad little novel, The Death of Jim Loney and felt the need to share a little of it. Welch is a writer who’s never received the due he deserves, I don’t believe – although I’ve just recently discovered him, via a friend’s direction. Perhaps that’s what I’m getting at – how did I miss this guy for so long? In life (he died in 2003) he never received much acclaim beyond some critical success for The Heartsong of Charging Elk and Fools Crow, yet grew a large following amongst his writing brethren. In the introduction to Loney, Jim Harrison blames this lack of national literary parity on the general historical mindset of the country – “why should I expect parity for a possibly major American writer when the Supreme Court has never managed parity for our lower citizens, the blacks and Chicanos and Indians, or the poor whites for that matter?” – as well as Welch’s self-imposed “exile” in Montana, far from the lights of the big city.
The Death of Jim Loney is a story of isolation and lack of identity that simmers with an almost unfocused anger just below the surface. As half-white, half-Native American, Loney has one foot in each culture, yet is not fully embraced (or rejected) by either. For the obvious titular reason, the ending is never in doubt, yet Welch has such an elegance to his prose as to keep you interested in this man, Loney, who is so heartbreakingly adrift that you want to take him in, feed him, let him warm by your fire. Even though the world he inhabits is very, very small, he is hopelessly lost in it, without the friend or family connections that keep the rest of us breathing. For this reason, we love him, unconditionally, and hope that he eventually find what he is looking for – “a place where those pasts merged into one and everything was all right and it was like everything was beginning again without a past.”
I’ll leave this topic with this excerpt, which I really loved, as I think it encapsulates the man that is Jim Loney rather beautifully:
“Loney was watching the river in his mind, the loops and bends as gracefully etched in the winter cover as a blue racer snake frozen in the grass. Loney always wondered how that river knew where to bend, why it wandered with such feckless purpose. He wondered if it always sought the lowest ground, or was his mind such a shambles that he assumed there was a reason behind its constant shifting? From the highway it looked aimless and vaguely malevolent and Loney thought there was something of that river in his own life and he didn’t think about it.”
*The photo used in this post is of Crow Flies High of the Gros Ventre people (Jim Loney’s mother was Gros Ventre) – courtesy of http://www.firstpeople.us/.