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Life on the other side of the words

Four Souls A Novel Louise Erdrich HarperCollins: 210 pp., $23.95

June 27, 2004|Thomas Curwen | Thomas Curwen is a Times staff writer and a frequent contributor to Book Review.

About suffering, the great poet W.H. Auden reminds us, the Old Masters were never wrong. They understood its human place. They knew the world to be perilous -- love fleeting and death inevitable -- but in their wisdom they let these details slip to the background and life rush ahead in all its messy glory.

In the fiction of Louise Erdrich, life always trumps suffering. As rife as her novels are with undercurrents of grief and loss and displacement, she delights more in the irreverent, the improbable and even the stylistically beautiful. Hers is a world never far from darkness yet never far from the attempts of mere mortals to set it right.

Fleur Pillager is one of these mortals. When we first see her in "Four Souls," Fleur is hellbent on settling a score with the man who stole, logged and destroyed her family's land, but what begins as the story of single-minded revenge soon becomes a more complex tale of transformation. Here, as in all of Erdrich's books, the law of unintended consequences carries the day.

"Four Souls" is one of Erdrich's shortest books and contains everything we expect from her writing. Episodic, ribald and at times incandescent, it fills an important niche in the cosmology she has been crafting since her first novel, "Love Medicine."

Unlike last year's successful diversion, "The Master Butchers Singing Club," "Four Souls" is part of her Matchimanito saga, a series of novels named for an imaginary Ojibwe homeland in north-central North Dakota. Taking place between 1924 and the mid-1930s, "Four Souls" completes a chronological gap between two earlier novels, "Tracks" and "The Bingo Palace."

When Erdrich developed the persona of Fleur more than 15 years ago, she created one of her most haunting and enigmatic characters. Born of a family of healers who lived beside Matchimanito Lake, Fleur has survived near-drownings, epidemics, rape and the loss of a child to a government school. When loggers confiscated her land at the conclusion of "Tracks," she loaded a cart with her possessions and followed a road out of the reservation, south to where it meets the "government school, depots, stores, the plotted squares of farms."

In "The Bingo Palace," Fleur reappeared in flashbacks, driving a white Pierce-Arrow and accompanied by a white child with a blank gaze, a penchant for sweets and an uncanny ability with cards. Through him, she won back her family's lost land. Who he is and where she has been: These are the questions that "Four Souls" answers.

Erdrich tells this new chapter in Fleur's life from the point of view of her adoptive father, Nanapush, and her employer Polly Elizabeth Gheen. Through Polly, we see Fleur at the age of 30, arriving on the doorstep of lumber baron John James Mauser, slightly deranged from her long trek, looking more like "an absence, a slot for a coin, an invitation for the curious, than a woman come to plead for menial work." Polly hires her as the laundress for the Mauser household, and Fleur slowly plots his murder.

But we also learn that all is not well with Mauser. He suffers from night sweats and seizures, consequences of his time in the trenches during the Great War and of a venereal disease contracted on the side as a result of his wife's chaste approach to lovemaking. Fleur, unable to kill a sick man, must minister to him so that he can better appreciate his doom. Except life gets the better of her and everyone else. As Polly concedes with resignation, "Everything that happened since I answered the door to Fleur was leading to this."

Polly's narration describes the life of the Mauser household, but Erdrich gives the story of Fleur's soul over to Nanapush, one of the oldest members of the reservation. Although his language and associations provide the novel with its most magical sequences, he is unfortunately not up to the task, too easily distracted by his own concerns and those of his wife, Margaret Kashpaw. By the end of "Four Souls," Fleur remains as much a mystery as ever. Only in the broader context of the Matchimanito novels -- particularly her early life in "Tracks" and her death in "The Bingo Palace" -- does the substance of her character completely emerge. But this is Erdrich's intent. Twenty years after "Love Medicine," her novels are like a richly braided stream. Individual scenes are perfect short stories, but their connection to the greater whole is often puzzling. Some argue that the relationships within her work are too complicated. Others say that they reflect a fractured world.

Like a poet who hints at a feeling -- and is all the more successful for its intimation -- Erdrich is out to capture something greater than the stories she takes such obvious delight in telling. Throughout her work, she conveys a profoundly fatalistic view of the world, so that in "Four Souls," for instance, Fleur's revenge is as irrelevant as the transgressions and crimes that preceded it.

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