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BOOK REVIEW : A Hopi Spirit Rises to the Occasion in a Back-Yard Setting

November 13, 1989|CAROLYN SEE

There's Something in the Backyard by Richard Snodgrass (Viking: $18.95; 380 pp.)

Somewhere north of Flagstaff, Ariz., two middle-aged academic couples live in moderately close proximity. They live out in the sticks with gorgeous Arizona all around them, and, if they use binoculars or a spy glass, they can keep track of each other. They have reason to do so.

In the foreground, so to speak, George Binns, a self-deluding, overweight, not very smart professor of English, dreams of his "girlfriend" back east, and thinks about writing "a poem, or maybe a short story, or maybe even a sketch for a novel." George works upstairs in a fairly new house. Downstairs, in the kitchen, his chain-smoking heavy-drinking, terminally depressed wife, Mary Olive, pours down jug wine and mourns her lost New York career. Why in God's name has her dimwit husband dragged them to this Godforsaken hole?

Across the valley, or wash, or mesa lives that other couple, old-timers here in Arizona, "white" people steeped in Hopi culture. Sally Pike wears Hopi headbands and decks herself out in squash blossom necklaces and playes Hopi music on her tape deck while she makes bad art. Her husband, Don, loves Hopi culture so much that he's taken to rewriting their myths in colloquial English--but he hates his work now, and his wife, and his life. He's dying of cancer, but he hasn't seen fit to tell anyone yet.

Don is smart and alienated. So, too, is Mary Olive, George's wife. Don and Mary Olive have been conducting an intense, semi-platonic affair. And George is upstairs when Mary Olive calls up to him in some alarm: "There's something in the back yard." That something is a genuine, far larger than life-sized kachina, an apparition of (or maybe the incontrovertible, genuine) underworld figure of Aholi, dolled up in a conical hat, poking around in the weeds just on the other side of the Binnses' back fence. Because, of course, it's not the Binnses' back yard at all, it's the Hopis' back yard. These dumb white folks are living their second-rate lives on sacred grounds of ancient myth.

George engages the loitering kachina in conversation. He does research on it. He attacks it, defends it, ignores it, recognizes it. He tries to tell his neighbors about it. Someone else calls the police about it. In short, every possible variation is rung upon the basic premise: What if a prehistoric god of the Hopi underworld came up to this world on some kind of an inscrutable errand?

Is this a "good" novel? Hard to say. The kachina, who never speaks but communicates on a thought level, is perfectly believable, extremely endearing, and someone you'd very much like to know. The Hopi tribesmen who make appearances throughout seem three-dimensional and believable. There's no "noble savage" hokeyness to this story. But the two couples seem somehow picked on by the author. They have to be very dumb, very limited, very unattractive, very narrow in their vision in order for the kachina to show up as the splendid creature he is.

Also, if it's not too bold of me to say so, the author attempts too much. The slangy re-creations of Hopi myth go over here like lead balloons. The other excursion into ancient prehistory stretch the story. George Binns' girlfriend and wife are both made to say sentences that are too cute for words. Still, the novel sticks in your mind, and the kachina himself is marvelous--as is the idea of these four ignorant whites more or less romantically in love with a culture that attracts and spurns them in almost the same gesture.

Jack Smith is on vacation.

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