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Short Takes

‘Rez Life,’ ‘Friends Like Us,’ ‘Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck’

REZ LIFE:

An Indian”s Journey Through Reservation Life

By David Treuer

Atlantic Monthly, 330 pp., illustrated, $26

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“Indian reservations, and those of us who live on them, are as American as apple pie, baseball, and muscle cars,’’ writes David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer who divides his time between his childhood home on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota and Los Angeles, where he teaches at USC. He blends memoir and history to reveal what life on a reservation is really like - neither the festival of dysfunction nor the oasis of noble, nature-loving stoics that many non-Indians imagine.

To debunk these stereotypes, Treuer populates his book with the real, complicated people who live in Leech Lake and other mostly upper Midwestern reservations. He chronicles the bitter toll taken by drug abuse and alcoholism through the court docket of his mother, a judge who presides over a tribal jurisdiction. Twin brothers whose idyllic childhood, spent in a family that lived almost entirely in the Ojibwe language, describe the cataclysmic rupture of being sent to a government boarding school for cultural deprogramming (many Indian parents were either forced to send their children there or chose to because of crippling food shortages that made it difficult to feed their families); one of the twins now run a program to bring Ojibwe back to the local schools. A couple fighting an unfair tax bill watches as their litigation ends in a ruling that leads to an explosion in the Indian gaming industry, whose casinos Treuer nails as an aesthetic blend of “aristocracy, bordello, Indians and nature, the big top and a theme park.’’ These are the voices that dominate this blistering, illuminating, ultimately hopeful book. If Treuer sometimes lets quotations meander, in the end they all feel like valuable testimony and proof of his claim that “[t]o understand American Indians is to understand America.’’

FRIENDS LIKE US

By Lauren Fox

Knopf, 269 pp., $24.95

Meet Willa: tall, awkward, artistic. Meet Jane: Willa’s roommate and soulmate, also tall and artistic, perhaps a bit less awkward. Meet Ben: Willa’s high-school best friend, a former nerd all grown up into unexpected hotness. When Willa reconnects with Ben, then introduces him to Jane, she is at first delighted that the two quickly become a couple. Inevitably, complications arise (nobody who’s ever seen a romantic comedy would expect less).

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Love triangles are as old as love itself, so how to make a novel about the shaky geometry of romance feel fresh? Lauren Fox, in her second book, succeeds admirably, partly because she places her twenty-something characters against a grim backdrop of economic uncertainty and the not-quite-healed wounds of parental failures. This is a snarky, punny group of friends, but their verbal virtuosity can’t quite cover the real fear that bubbles up when one asks, “Why is it that none of us has a real job?’’ or another ponders “that elusive but irreversible moment when a person tips from full-of-promise to never-quite-lived-up-to-her-potential.’’ Although anyone over 30 knows that all three will survive the explosion of their love triangle, their worries about adulthood itself are well-founded, and even those who disdain the millennial generation for its entitled passivity may well sympathize. Willa plays with fire, gets burned, and learns, at least tentatively, that “opportunities for forgiveness are unlimited.’’ But in the end, what elevates this book above chick-lit status are its deeper insights: that growing up is an absurdly nonlinear process, and that, as Willa asks, the real question is “How is it that we can live in this world, love people, and then say good-bye to them?’’

EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD TRAIN WRECK:

Why We Can”t Look Away

By Eric G. Wilson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp., $22

What makes a horrible sight so compelling, even magnetically attractive? According to Eric G. Wilson, a professor of English at Wake Forest University who has previously written about melancholy and depression, there is something redeeming in the contemplation of the awful. A morbid curiosity, he argues, “can be a muse to empathic imagination,’’ allowing us to understand one another, even to comprehend better just how precious life is. Of course, he allows, there’s also a kinky, fetishistic side to our affection for horror movies and freak shows - as Thomas Hardy’s recollection of the sexy figure of a hanged woman murderer illustrates, Wilson writes, “one source of macabre fascination is carnal.’’

Slight and very personal (one chapter deals almost entirely with Wilson’s catatonic depression and eventual bipolar diagnosis), this book is wide-ranging almost to a fault. At its worst, a lack of focus raises important unanswered questions - are the same Jungian and Aristotelian forces at work when we see actual horrors, as opposed to fictional ones? How does the poignancy of the memento mori relate to the crudeness of slapstick, violent humor? Yet there is something winning about how willing Wilson seems to be to admit the book’s faults, even as he writes it. An email exchange with Joyce Carol Oates, in which she chides the author for “concentrating on superficial elements’’ (he had been trying to get her to agree with his theory on serial killers as modern-day saints) is both cringe-inducing and oddly charming. At best, the book reassures: enjoying grotesque, horrible, frightening images is a natural impulse. From fairy tales to crime dramas, they hit us where we are most human.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.

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