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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A Mystery of Beauty and Navajo Culture : THE FALLEN MAN by Tony Hillerman; HarperCollins $24, 294 pages

December 06, 1996|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How do Navajos decide where to place their hogans?

"A Navajo, like a rancher everywhere," Tony Hillerman writes, "would need access to water, to grazing, to a road, and above all a soul-healing view of--in the words of one of the curing chants--'beauty all around you.' '

In his new novel, Hillerman returns to the Four Corners area of the Southwest and takes us with him to places where there is beauty all around.

Like this: "December came to the Four Corners but winter lingered up in the Utah Mountains. It had buried the Wasatch Range under three feet and ventured far enough south to give Colorado's San Juans a snowcap.

"But the brief post-Halloween storm that had whitened the slopes of Ship Rock and the Chuskas proved to be a false threat.

"It was dry again across the Navajo Nation--skies dark blue, mornings cool, sun dazzling. The south end of the Colorado Plateau was enjoying that typically beautiful autumn weather that makes the inevitable first blizzard such a dangerous surprise."

In his last book Hillerman went to Vietnam. With his newest novel, "The Fallen Man," he is back home with our old friends Jim Chee, now an acting lieutenant in the Navajo Tribal Police, and former Lt. Joe Leaphorn, who has just retired.

As the mystery opens, climbers find a man's skeleton on a ledge below the summit of Ship Rock, the 1,712-foot monolith that rises abruptly on the Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico.

After the news hits the papers, a Navajo living in Canyon de Chelly on the reservation in northeastern Arizona is shot and wounded.

In the meantime, cattle thievery has become a problem.

Beginning with these strands, Hillerman weaves yet another of his captivating Navajo novels.

Captivating at least for me and other fans. Like Patrick O'Brian, the Irish writer of tales about the Royal Navy of 200 years ago, Hillerman does not have a universal appeal.

But for lots of us, the arrival of a new Hillerman means a few hours of anticipated pleasure.

Part of his appeal is the vast, stern landscape itself. Racked by blizzards, pounded by great summer thunderstorms, its immense skies split by lightning and pillared with clouds, guarded on four corners by four sacred mountains, the arid Navajo Reservation presents one of the grandest landscapes in the United States.

And that it is in the United States, but not wholly of the United States, Hillerman uses to great effect. Navajo culture is one of the elements that gives Hillerman's books their special charm.

Navajos do not mention the names of the dead. When they visit someone, they wait a respectful while a distance from the hogan before venturing closer. If a Navajo thinks you are not telling him the truth, he will not look you in the eye.

Navajos seek harmony in their lives, balance between themselves and the natural world they inhabit, balance between themselves, their ancestors and their living fellows. And all of Hillerman's Navajo books seem to me to embody this search for harmony.

Certainly that is what the policeman Jim Chee wants. He lives in a house trailer under the cottonwoods by the San Juan River. You know that this is where he belongs.

But you're not sure about his girlfriend, Janet Pete. Janet's father was Navajo, but her mother wasn't and raised her in a grand manner in Baltimore. The tension between the two worlds come out strongly in "The Fallen Man."

The gentle Chee is at the emotional center of this book, but the detection is the cooperative work of Chee and the older, more experienced Leaphorn.

Together they solve the puzzles that grow in complexity as the book progresses. In "The Fallen Man," Hillerman has constructed one of his more intricate plots and one of his more satisfying novels.

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