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The Moment in Fiction When Truth Flees : THE PLACE IN FLOWERS WHERE POLLEN RESTS by Paul West (Doubleday: $19.95; 490 pp.)

October 09, 1988|Hartman H. Lomawaima | Lomawaima, who is from Sipaulovi on Second Mesa, Ariz., was until recently assistant director of the Lowie Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley. He has just relocated to Seattle, where he will be lecturing at the University of Washington.

The title of this novel is also the surname of its protagonist. George The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests is a Hopi man who has lived his entire life among the majestic high mesas of northeastern Arizona. The Hopi people have lived here for more than a thousand years, and among their villages is the oldest settlement in all of North America.

The story that unfolds is not in all ways unique. It is about a small-scale society, a small village, a small family and small minds. The author could have selected from an infinite number of backdrops where small was the operative word. In this work, he has selected to project his story against a Hopi screen. Does it work? In a word (the favorite word of George's nephew Oswald Beautiful Badger Going Over the Hill), Negatorio : an unequivocal no.

The story is set in our time, and the place names used are easy to locate in any Rand McNally guide. George The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests is not an old man, but he is beset with heart trouble and on-coming blindness, which will permanently curtail his lifelong activity as an artist. George is a carver of wooden figurines Hopis call Tihu, also known as kachina dolls. According to Hopi belief, kachinas are guardian spirits that possess supernatural powers.

In Hopi culture, artistry has many definitions. The farmer who dares to plant in an almost impossible environment yet manages successfully to provide for his family year after year, is an artist. The composer of songs, who is counted upon by fellow villagers to create poetic prayers for ceremonial occasions knowing that once his or her song is used, it will never be uttered in ritual again, is an artist. The sculptor who transforms driftwood and mineral pigments into likenesses of spiritual friends, kachinas for his maternal nieces, is also an artist. In actuality, Hopi who dedicate themselves to the "life of the short ear of corn" realizing both hardship and prosperity are all these things and more. They are truly artists.

George The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests, however, has become an artist in the narrower European sense. He is a full-time kachina doll carver, supporting himself by selling his wares. Having tried all the other Hopi "stuff," he is happiest with a piece of seasoned cottonwood root in one hand and a carving tool in the other. He is also driven by an American market that has endowed kachina dolls with a monetary value too tempting to pass up. George has resigned himself to producing dolls solely for the outside market. The market, it seems, helps George justify and sustain the solitary path he has taken.

Everyone in George's family lives on or near the Hopi homeland except for one paternal nephew, Oswald Beautiful Badger Going Over The Hill. Oswald is seeking his place among the big stars of Hollywood, paying his dues not on the old casting couch but on a set in full view of producers, directors, camera people and cameras. He thinks that pornographic movies are the avenue to bigger and better opportunities. But Oswald's part in the accidental death of a porn starlet makes him decide to return to his people.

At first glance, Oswald sees that little has changed on the Hopi mesas. He is happy to see his family, and Uncle George, in particular. After considering all the options available to him, Oswald decides he wants to learn to be a doll carver. He spends almost all his waking hours with George, who by now is completely blind but still making dolls. We become privy to the relationship that was always there between uncle and nephew, reawakened by a mutual need. We learn a little about daily reservation life. We learn something of the attitudes that government-sponsored professionals, teachers, physicians, etc., bring with them and something of how Hopis cope with their presence. But this jousting is only superficial. The author's mind can only see what his eyes tell him to see and his inability to see beyond the obvious runs throughout the work.

Oswald enlists in the military and is sent to Vietnam. Through his eyes, we see and experience action that is all too familiar by now. After his tour of duty in Southeast Asia, he returns home again, still searching for a niche in Hopi society or any society, for that matter. In the end, he commits a most heinous act in the presence of his family, fellow villagers and guardian spirits. At last, we realize that his niche is simply to be outrageous on principle and by any society's terms.

This is the clearest indictment of Oswald's kahopi or non-Hopi-ness. To be a nonconformist, to act out, to disregard family, clan and village--to be kahopi --is the ultimate transgression of Hopi life.

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