- The Indian Who Bombed Berlin
Ralph Salisbury's book of short fiction explores the American Indian perspective during a time of war. It offers an in-the-trenches account of racism toward Native American men and a glimpse of the obstacles they encounter as they mature and cope with their own quests for masculine identity and national validation. It reveals the ugly face of discrimination by friend and foe, and it painfully calls for unity and peace amid rioting and bombing, as we lie, in uniform, face down in the mud with blood on our hands. This book explores masculine identity, sexual maturity, racism, imperialism, and nationalism while weaving together the stories of young men who become soldiers and who go on to recognize the futility of war.
Salisbury is dedicated to language and metaphor in his fiction, as he is in his poetry: his metaphor strikes deep into the belly. In "Bathsheba's Bath, Bull Durham's Bull, and a Bottle of Old Grandad," Salisbury writes of Lack, a twelve-year-old Cherokee, in a coming-of-age tale. Kenny, Lack's twenty-year-old cousin, is hiding a bottle of whisky in his boot. Kenny has just returned from war and is possessed by "the eighth deadly sin," liquor: "Each day, Lack saw that the level of amber had, like thermometer fluid, fallen; but each time it reached zero, it returned to full summer" (19). The metaphor in this line paints a heartbreaking picture of the cousin's future. Lack's own future is thrown into uncertainty, too, as he takes a "ritualistic" pull off the bottle that burned "like a jigger itch all the way down" (21).
There are many such gems of poetic language throughout this collection of treasures, albeit gems with a piercing glint. In "A Volga River and a Purple Sea," Salisbury writes of Cyrus Littlehorse Jones, nicknamed "Sy," a would-be figure skater, in another coming-of-age tale. This time the protagonist is fifteen years old, growing closer to adulthood and closer to being a soldier. Sy's future is starting to come into focus, but he doesn't realize it: "At sex-and-guilt-ridden [End Page 94] fifteen, Sy could not foresee Municipal Pool and Volga River's becoming Pacific Ocean" (33). Salisbury captures how oblivious young teens can be with a worldview clouded by puberty, and his words cast into perspective the immensity of Sy's uncertain future. There is thus a kind of chronology in the book. Starting with a young boy in elementary school, each protagonist advances in age. Each tale adds to the preceding story as Salisbury marches us toward adulthood and onto an uncertain and painful victory in Berlin.
This weaving together of stories also highlights Salisbury's genrecrossing techniques. Already steeped with metaphor and poetic language, this collection of short stories can also be read as a novel. I would find myself questioning, "Is this poetry, or is it fiction?" I often went back to check the names of the protagonists, too, questioning how the stories were linked: "Are these short stories, or is this a novel?" By changing the names of the characters, Salisbury gives us multiple perspectives from which to see through a Native American man's eyes. In the process, Salisbury forces us to question the boundaries between short fiction and the novel.
The issue of masculine identity that plagued Sy and other protagonists along the way is brought to a surprising victory in the story "The New World Invades the Old." Sher Sheridan serves as a State Department translator to diplomats and international liaisons in Europe. But the surprising and rewarding part of Sher's work is how he excises a small victory for Native Americans by invading the old world using romance languages and his sexual magnetism as his weapons: during many nights, weekends, and occasional vacations, he made love to diplomats' daughters or wives who found his dark face "exotically handsome" and his manners "charmingly French" (55). Later, Sher meets a Greek woman...