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IN BRIEF

FICTION : MESSENGER BIRD by Dan McCall (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; $19.95; 192 pp.)

April 11, 1993

Viewed from an emergency room, every society seems careless, brutal and self-destructive. This is doubly true for the Apache reservation in New Mexico where the young surgeon who narrates "Messenger Bird" serves with the U.S. Public Health Service in 1971-72. He might as well be in Vietnam. Violence and drunken accidents bring an endless line of wounded to his 25-bed hospital, and many of his patients' problems, born of generations-old despair, are beyond doctoring.

Dan McCall ("Jack the Bear") could hardly fail with material as strong as this. Still, "Messenger Bird" is an odd novel. The first half reads as if he rounded up a group of reservation doctors, bought them drinks and staged a "can you top this" contest to elicit their saddest and most gruesome stories; then he sutured the stories together with little concession to plot.

Plot does appear in the second half, but it remains in the background. Jim, the narrator, falls for Annie Messenger Bird Lester Mendez, skilled nurse, devoted teacher and his window into the Native American soul. Can their love survive? Will Annie's musician son, Silas, become just another "Apache dropout"? Can her ex-father-in-law, the wily, Dartmouth-educated tribal chief, prevent a massacre when American Indian Movement activists occupy the hospital and lawmen surround it? All this happens in the gaps between case histories, the pauses between drumbeats of pain.

There are two ways of looking at this book. We can say that McCall has failed to use his material to the fullest advantage, to shape and filter it according to novelistic convention. Or we can say that "Messenger Bird"--though it isn't in journal form--does resemble what a real doctor might write as he learns day by day about life, death and the dark side of American history. For all its compassion, it doesn't pretend to be more than an outsider's account. The Apaches, we're sure, have their own story to tell.

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