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After 20 Years, a New Frank Waters Novel : FLIGHT FROM FIESTA by Frank Waters (Swallow Press/ Ohio University Press:9.95; 140 pp.)

December 20, 1987|Bob Gish | Gish is professor of English at the University of Iowa.

Frank Waters is perhaps best known for his books on Hopi and Navajo ceremonialism, "The Woman at Otowi Crossing" (the best novel yet written on the science and mysticism surrounding the making of the atomic bomb), and "The Man Who Killed the Deer," a classic account of Indian maturation set against the pueblo tribalism and town politics of Taos.

Over a long and illustrious writing career, Waters has established himself as one of the premier Southwestern writers--squabbles about geographical and aesthetic boundaries of regionalism notwithstanding. Among non-Native Americans writing about the Native American experience and what it might and might not mean for Americans generally, Waters always writes with great credibility and empathy. Invariably, he succeeds in convincing us that ritual, spirit of place and reverence for the forces of life, death and change are--when noticed--even more mysterious now in the face of the puzzlements of modern civilization.

Now, at age 85, and after a hiatus of 20 years, Waters offers "Flight From Fiesta," one more attempt to make us sit up and take notice of what the Native American experience might mean as an escape from the trivial and foolhardy revelries of the "fiesta" of modern materialism.

On the surface, this is a disarmingly simple book that reads like fiction best suited for adolescents. Admittedly, Westerns--regardless of sub-type--all seem to have an adolescent naivete about them, especially in the high-tec '80s. Not only in his characters but in his plot Waters seems, on the surface of things, predictable and formulaic: During the 1950s, while visiting Santa Fe during fiesta, an at once indulged and neglected child named Elsie Wilbur--accompanied by her Yuppie-like mother, Honey, and her mother's abusive lover, Freddie--meets an old drunken Tewa Pueblo Indian, Innocencio, who is selling his family's hand-crafted pottery on the plaza. Elsie breaks the old man's pottery, refuses to pay for it and adds insult to injury by ridiculing him.

And so begins a relationship that ironically finds Innocencio and Elsie paired together as outcasts and runaways who head first to the pueblo, then to Gallup, N.M., from there to a small Hispanic mountain village, and then into the mountains--in flight from a motley posse consisting of a lawyer named Evans; Evans' wife, Margret; a sheriff; a deputy; a villainous tracker appropriately named "Indian Hater," and Honey and Freddie. During her flight, Elsie meets with poverty, depravity, fear and love like she has never known. In the process of one week with Innocencio on the road and on the trail her whole life is changed forever.

In its alternating of the misadventures that befall the pursued, with the worries and misinformation of the pursuers, the plot settles into a kind of familiar "meanwhile back at the ranch" rhythm. Despite some implausible antics on Elsie's part, given her age of 10, and some gratuitous and strident speeches by Margaret Evans, who tags along seemingly only to harp at Elsie's repentant and sincerely distraught mother, Waters succeeds at reawakening and reinterpreting some of America's oldest archetypes and taboos: Indian as benevolent friend, guide, and protector; Indian as savage captor of white women; adult/child eroticism; "bad seed" of divorce, abandoned by father and neglected by promiscuous mother; and so it goes . . . .

Although not on the same literary plane with the likes of somewhat similar treatments such as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," or "Lolita," or "The Death of Jim Loney"--or, for that matter, some of Waters' earlier fiction--"Flight From Fiesta" is a welcome event and very much worth a look, especially for its underlying myths and its transcendental description of Southwestern landscapes.

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