- Trickster Today
Red Mountain Press
152 Pages; Print, $19.95
Those who pay even cursory attention to the folklore and popular culture of middle America will recognize the “Jackalope” as one of our country’s most interesting hybrids—part backroads kitsch, part hoax, and part archetypal trickster. In her new picaresque collection of stories and short poems about the legendary antlered hare, Denise Low (former poet laureate of Kansas) offers readers a distinctly indigenized version of this figure. The result is an engaging and humorous read, one that reveals a great deal about the parallel, contemporary Native America that exists and thrives in ways largely invisible to many other Americans. Jackalope is a regionalist work, as well, but it is written very much in the style of the “new” regionalism. This is to say, Low’s stories evoke the rhythms, landscapes, and people of the West and Southwest, but they do so without any hint of nostalgia, sentimentality, or parochialism. Jackalope explores the complicated interplay between the local and the cosmopolitan. In doing so, however, the book challenges any tendency to reduce the relationship between Indian Country and the rest of the country to simple binaries. This is a text that will teach general readers a great deal about contemporary Native America without seeming the least bit didactic. It is also a book that indigenous audiences and other literary insiders will find divertingly full of what critic Kenneth Lincoln calls “Indi’n Humor.” In these respects, in Low’s sure hands the literary trickster (a figure who dominated American Indian writing and criticism in the 1980s and 1990s) re-emerges in Jackalope as a resilient imaginative force for the twenty-first century.
It is an important and telling move on Low’s part that she begins her collection with a story titled “Jackalope Walks into a Twitter Bar.” Setting the tone for the book as a whole, Low introduces her readers to a trickster who, while clearly comfortable with technology, is at the same time not completely savvy about, nor in control of it. Jackalope sounds like most of us, in this respect, a fact that creates an inviting opening. Even more significantly for Low, however, the image of the technological trickster provides a way of insisting on an enduring indigenous presence in the modern world (a point which, sadly, must continually be made in contemporary America) while also highlighting the persistent satirical utility of tricksters in contemporary settings. In the story, “Jack” (our gender-shifting trickster is male in this piece) visits an establishment called “Twitter Time,” a venue whose business model is built around the exploration of technologically-mediated hybridity—“merging social media and face time.” The manipulation and consumption of virtual identities by various patrons of the bar subtly reinforces a point of potential connection between indigenous and non-indigenous readers; all of us are rendered more and more liminal and trickster-like in modern society. There is, of course, an underlying irony here, one that Low passes over with a light touch: the forces of technological modernity seems to be revealing the potential to return us to the kind of pleasurable, “mythic” identities that our society has often racialized and denigrated (associated them with the “primitivism” of indigenous people).
What makes Low’s book so successful and subtly complex here, however, is the way that this story refuses to resolve itself into this first, neat conclusion. In a tale whose initial theme seems to be to foreground the possibility of hybrid identities in which all might share, Low also reminds us of the jackalope’s enduring position as an outsider. Not all hybrids are created equal, in other words. In the midst of enjoying himself at “Twitter Time,” Jack is surprised to be accosted for autographs by numerous strangers. Initially, of course, this appeals to his vanity. But soon, to his horror, Jack realizes that he has accidentally been candidly filming himself (and various romantic partners) on his smartphone and posting the video, which has been picked up by others and now has gone viral. His celebrity, then, is based on...