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Coyote Kills John Wayne: Postmodernism and Contemporary Fictions of the Transcultural Frontier
Carlton Smith. Coyote Kills John Wayne: Postmodernism and Contemporary Fictions of the Transcultural Frontier. Hanover: UP of New England, 2000. 167 pp.
This study addresses two important issues in contemporary criticism and theory: first, the relationship between multicultural texts and postmodernism, and second, the role of the frontier and of discourses of discovery in contemporary narrative. While the works of Native American and other contemporary ethnic writers may share postmodern practices without embracing postmodern critique, Smith argues that these works profit from being read in the context of contemporary critiques of subjectivity and representation. Postmodern displacement of master narratives opens a space in which the concept of the frontier, for example, can be renegotiated by those whom conventional representations have excluded. Smith explores these issues in alternating chapters, three dealing with important Native American writers (Leslie Marmon Silko, Thomas King, and Louise Erdrich) and three analyzing novels by William Vollmann and Thomas McGuane and the Man With No Name films of Sergio Leone.
The strength of the book lies in its close readings and Smith is especially erudite concerning the novels by Native American writers Silko, King, and Erdrich, as well as Vollmann's highly individualistic work. Smith's discussion of ghost dancing--historic and literary--in Silko's Almanac of the Dead is compelling, as is his attention to conflicting concepts of time in that novel. His analysis of Native American identity in Erdrich's The Bingo Palace is fruitful both as an address to issues at play in that novel and as an introduction to the Turtle Mountain series as a whole.
What is somewhat less satisfying is the development of the theoretical issues with which the study begins. Given that one objective of postmodern argument is not to satisfy, but rather to stimulate or provoke further inquiry, the evolution of the argument as it moves from one application to another might be better articulated. In particular, the concept of the frontier might be situated more precisely with respect to each of the works Smith takes up. The study begins with an analysis of the Turner thesis and particularly the absences and inconsistencies in Turner's representations of nation, cultural boundaries, and space. This focus seems to anchor the notion of the frontier in the imaged geography of the North American West and its place in North American cultural [End Page 492] constructs. Moreover, the more-or-less alternating chapters (the exceptions are the Silko and King chapters, which are back to back) suggest that the study will develop a dialogue between Native American texts and texts that arise from--although they may contest--the dominant culture. As the discussion develops, however, a geographically specific notion of the frontier alternates with extended postmodern concerns about the construction and deconstruction of borders in general and the "Western" imaginary broadly conceived. The chapter focusing on Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns illustrates the need for careful articulation of the relationship between "west" and "West." Provocative in its own right as an analysis of the reception of these films and their articulation of 1960s culture, the chapter does not fully elaborate questions the films raise about who is speaking, whose "west" is portrayed, and how the North American West figures in the encompassing Euro-American discourse, particularly as it is engaged by Europeans.
Nonetheless, it is perhaps fittingly postmodern that the strength of this study lies in its exploration of particular contours rather than a broad landscape, and that the pleasures of those particulars are considerable.
University of Alaska, Anchorage