The Fast Red Road—A Plainsong is a novel which plunders, in a gleeful, two-fisted fashion, the myth and pop-culture surrounding the American Indian. It is a story fueled on pot fumes and blues, borrowing and distorting the rigid conventions of the traditional western. Indians, cowboys, and outlaws are as interchangeable as their outfits; men strike poses from Gunsmoke, and horses are traded for Trans-Ams. Pidgin, the half-blood protagonist, inhabits a world of illusion—of aliens, ghosts, telekinesis, and water-pistol violence—where television offers redemption, and "the Indian always gets it up the ass."
Having escaped the porn factories of Utah, Pidgin heads for Clovis, NM to bury his father, Cline. But the body is stolen at the funeral, and Pidgin must recover it. With the aid of car thief Charlie Ward, he criscrosses a wasted New Mexico, straying through bars, junkyards, and rodeos, evading the cops, and tearing through barriers "Dukestyle." "Charlie Ward slid his thin leather belt from his jeans and held it out the window, whipping the cutlass faster, faster, his dyed black hair unbraiding in the fifty mile per hour wind, and they never stopped for gas." Along the way, Pidgin escapes a giant coyote, survives a showdown with Custer, and encounters the remnants of the Goliard Tribe—a group of radicals to which Cline belonged.
Pidgin's search allows him to reconcile the death of his father with five hundred years of colonial myth-making, and will eventually place him in a position to rewrite history. Jones tells his tale in lean, poetic prose. He paints a bleak, fever-burnt west—a land of strip-joints, strip-malls, and all you can eat beef-fed-beef stalls, where the inhabitants speak a raw, disposable lingo. His vision is dark yet frighteningly recognizable. In the tradition of Gerald Vizenor's Griever, The Fast Red Road—A Plainsong blazes a trail through the puppets and mirrors of myth, meeting the unexpected at every turn, and proving that the past—the texture of the road—can and must be changed.
"Stephen Graham Jones is an original, visionary storier. The characters in this marvelous plainsong novel, waist high in witty, gritty, commotion, steal the reader away to the fantastic, wild edges of reality." —Gerald Vizenor
"My hat is off to Stephen Graham Jones, because he is the kind of author that makes the frustrated writer inside every book reviewer cringe with self-doubt. The Fast Red Road - a Plainsong, Jones's first novel, is the kind of debut that should cause critics and readers everywhere to stand up and take notice. It's also the kind of debut that should drive wannabe writers to revise their copies of that crucial first manuscript over and over again, looking for the kind of power and majesty that they (by which I mean we) find in other newcomers." —Patrick Schabe, PopMatters
Black Tea: An Old Man Has a Narrative Experience with Prescription Laxatives
Litmus was the sixth one back from the register, which opened onto the buffet. ‘The goddamn gate to heaven,’ the bearded man behind him called it, and Litmus nodded his head back and forth, waiting. The bearded man was seven feet tall. Litmus drummed William Tell hard into his demo case, until the Indian woman directly ahead of him turned and grabbed his wrist just when his fingers were going their fastest, cadenced like horse hooves. He didn’t tell her he wasn’t her child, that he was old enough to be her father, but by the time he’d looked hard into her face and she’d turned away in apology, he was holding her hand there, under his own. Silky Bird it said on the back of her satin jacket, in thread. He asked her what it meant, and she stumbled through her childhood and her short motherhood and finally said ‘nothing, just nothing,’ then occupied herself smoothing Litmus’ wispy forearm hair back down along his wrist. He was hungry, Litmus was. He’d spent the last two days trapped in a Folsom motel room, hobbled by his big toe, chained to a TV rerunning Jay Silverheel outtakes. He was here to eat and then eat again. He loosened his thin black belt in anticipation, looped his pale hair around his head and over an ear, where it was already falling down.
In front of him and Silky Bird were four cowboys straight from a beer commercial, each more beautiful than the last, their cheekbones chiseled sharp, collective dark hair cropped short against the Clovis sun. The high school girl working the register was defenseless against them, a small nervous giggling thing with braids. When they were finally gone and Silky Bird was digging through her purse for an elusive second party check, the waitress nodded her head down to Litmus’ demo case and said she didn’t think so.
‘This is a buffet, sir.’
‘Yes ma’am,’ Litmus said back, talking slow and deliberate for her. ‘Pitch till you win.’
The waitress ran her pen behind her ear, a violent motion. ‘This is a buffet,’ she said again, harder, pointing to his case now.
The line behind Litmus was quiet except for the breathing giant. Silky Bird was lining pill bottles up on the glass, no checkbook yet. Litmus told the waitress he wasn’t going to sell a vacuum cleaner to her customers, for Chrissake, in the middle of the day like this, and she just said it again, like it was an answer, that this was a buffet. When she reached for the case Litmus shifted it behind his thick right leg.
‘I’m here to eat, ma’am.’
‘And we’re here to serve you, sir. But not with that.’
Litmus made a sound to start the whole dialogue over, but saw in the tilt of her face it would run just the same. There were some three tons of people behind him. To his right was Silky Bird, an assortment of glass pipes and needles on the counter now, her on her knees, holding a tintype of her kidnapped son, making oval cooing sounds into the portrait. The giant palmed her head, patting gently, and his fingers came down to her jawline on both sides.
Litmus smiled to the waitress when he got it. ‘I’m not going to pack any of your precious food out of here, y’know.’
‘I don’t much guess you’d tell me if you were.’ She said it with her voice flat like the edge of something, and Litmus laughed out his nose, because she was sixteen and there wasn’t a thing in the world he could do. He had to eat. He finally just spun the twin combination locks in a grand gesture of defeat, surrendered the case.
It was eighteen seventy-six for him and Silky Bird and the giant. Business expenses, he explained, then collected the receipt and neatly covered the three steps to the end of the buffet, ahead of both of them. He didn’t turn around when he heard his case being pried open, either. He was going to eat, by God; as far as he could see were picnic tables with purina-checkered tablecloths, and short Mexican busboys who, tubless yet able, quietly collected the refuse by drawing the four corners of the tablecloths together, throwing the sack over their shoulders, and weaving themselves into the lunchtime crowd. The tablecloths were at least ten deep in places, and the walls in the distance were unadorned, just adobe and chili stains and flies too slow to be all the way alive. The only noise was food: an orange-headed man cracking open a bone and sucking the black marrow out; a woman slurping gravy from a bowl and laughing about something; a child with his lap wet from pee and his mouth attached to a doubled-together straw, the other end going from drink to drink around the deserted table, counterclockwise. He flipped Litmus off and Litmus smiled. He was just getting back to answering the kid in kind when the giant’s index finger high in his back told him it was his turn, and then he was taking from each metal bin, heaping it on his plate, going by smell, letting the greases merge together then drip down his hand and off his knuckle, back into the bins.
A kitchen boy came with a new bin and refilled whatever was low. Litmus managed to slip him three dollars of appreciation, and the boy ducked away into the background noise, a background dominated now by a vacuum cleaner being slammed crudely together.
Litmus tried to ignore it.
He scooped more on his plate but it slid off the sides; he wasn’t even halfway through the line yet, and already food placement had become an issue: only one more item was going to fit this time around, and even that was going to take a steady hand. Litmus nodded his head as little as possible, chased the saliva down his chin, and finally looked through the plastiglass, for something that wouldn’t slide off, something with balance, poise, the proper weight, and as his hand moved through the pork steam, searching, it became hard and harder to follow, indistinct, strobed, moving without him, hardly a part of him at all, and when he concentrated to track it, own it, direct the ladle foodward, the trough-style table in front of him suddenly and with no foreplay lost its horizontal hold and became flattened layers of itself, scrolling up and up, like there were birds on whatever antenna fed the diner, leather-skinned paleolithic things that should never have been able to fly so high. They screamed through the layers, right at Litmus, taunting, inviting, and in a clean snap the vertical went too, a little at first, but finally pushing everything side to side, leaving black at the edges, flecked with nothing. It was the black that made Litmus close his eyes. It made no difference.
He counted twice to what felt like a nervous three, and when he finally peeked out one lid at a time the hair on his forearm was still combed and the ladle was still heavy in his hand, still reaching, the diner and the bins before him were dialed back in, sweating grease, and he had only blinked. Home again home again. The ladle weighed the same, still had mass and even momentum, prior direction, and was still dowsing towards something in the centermost bin, dowsing like no one had blinked and no one would, so Litmus played along, followed its course under the glass, his hand behind but uninvolved, and that was when he saw what had been done, what he had counted into existence: in the bin closest to him was a selection of uncooked man-sized kidneys that had been blue dumplings the moment before last. On the opposite side of the trough an old and out of place Shoshone-looking man had speared a cross section of a tawny forearm and was balancing it across his plate like baby back ribs, his fork making no noise against the anchor tattoo. The blue ink was old, Spanish, punta or something, but the u had worn away into an i, for pinta, the disease, the ship. Scattered in the other bins were livers spotted scotch gold, fat sheathed backstraps, stuffed entrails, and more, parts without name, steaming and writhing, like a weak drive-in movie you’re supposed to laugh at. But Litmus wasn’t laughing. He wasn’t even breathing. Five hundred years were slipping away. The giant poked him high in the back again, but this time Litmus didn’t move. He couldn’t. Everything was coming all at once: the marrow in his own bones, buried somewhere beneath the flesh, untasted; the flies on the wall drifting in and out of this world like small ferrymen; the fevered man in the bathroom, carving fevered words; even the dogs out back, fighting over leftovers as the three busboys huddled under the stoop passed a nervous joint between themselves, left to right. Two of them would be dead before the year was out, the third burying a small caliber handgun over and over, a different place each night, farther and farther out. Litmus watched the never shaved area around the third one’s mouth glow red with the joint, then go dim. He was aware again, of everything. For the first time in years, more than he cared to count. It was like waking up. And he didn’t want to.
In a last effort to resist, he reached part of himself out, across the horrorshow buffet, locked eyes with the old Shoshone man and pulled him in, forced him too to see what was on his plate, what he had been eating, what they had all been eating. The old man’s lower lip trembled. His plate became heavy and fell to the ground. Nobody made to sweep it up. The old man tried to look away, to the sinking sound the anchor tattoo shouldn’t have made, but Litmus held him there for a moment longer, because it hurt to know all alone, to have to be seeing through like this. For a moment then they were one, this random old man and Litmus, and instead of the sick buffet spread before them, Litmus tasted instead this old man’s vision—Seth’s vision—saw his daughter growing into a woman he didn’t know, saw the many-hour drive to Clovis for this monthly ritual of food and medicine, but then too, buried deeper than the rest, right below the radio-talking days of WWII, was this scene all over: human flesh in bite-sized portions. Litmus could taste it washing back up his throat, up Seth’s throat, and like that the visual tissue they shared tore, and the old man was shuffling away already, his shoulders caved around his chest, suspenders the only thing keeping his pants up.
On his own toilet that night the old man Seth sat reading the tabloid that’d blown up against his leg on the way out of the buffet. ‘It’s not all crap,’ he told his wife, ‘come look for yourself,’ but she wasn’t listening anymore. She had her shows, he had his reading. ‘It’s not crap,’ he yelled hoarsely, and then more came out and he felt emptier than he ever had, hollowed out, pithed by the pharmacist. He raised the half-full milkjug of shitwater to his mouth one more time and let it course through him, doctor’s orders: in the morning they would sodomize him again with their oversized garden hose, just looking for something wrong, and then he’d break wind for days, sleeping behind their new trailer, cradling his tender bowels.
The buffet was supposed to have been his last supper before going to the Clovis doctor, a feast of BBQ beef ribs and honeybutter yeast rolls, but he hadn’t even eaten his fill, hadn’t even had time to smuggle chicken out in each of his pockets, for later, because there at the denuded buffet later hadn’t began to matter yet. His eyes had been haywired, looking thirty-four years backwards into a survivor’s guilt he’d thought outrun by now, a deed he thought buried. Maybe it was something in the food, he told himself. Chemicals, preservatives, radiation, Clovis. Anything, even senility. Call it an episode.
More shitwater. Just get it all out.
What remained of the tabloid had to do with a fledgling porn actor who’d broken his contract and disappeared into the Utah night with a twenty-seven dollar supply check, going feral perhaps, keep an eye out. The silhouette of a watchful Mormon took up the rest of the page. Then too, further in, there was the creeping presence of Saint Augustine Decline among eastern gardens, a Decline backlit by the recent outbreak of Saint Anthony’s Fire in the midwest. Geronimo, the California reporter said, Jerome help us. Seth mouthed the words, Ge-ron-i-mo, and when the toilet water finally splashed onto his hairless inner thigh again he breathed out and flipped to the center section, the second to the last page. It was the predictions, Big Spring Sally’s predictions, made from her padded cell. Seth smiled the side of his face that still smiled. He remembered her, or pieces of her, from way back when. The crazy-ass white girl. The color picture was of her holding both sides of her head, like she was trying to squeeze more out of it, or keep something in.
It didn’t matter; she was beautiful.
This year’s predictions weren’t like last year’s, though; they didn’t even bother with her hit-miss ratio. It was mostly just the same chest-up picture of her, from different sides of her room, a spider’s eye view, fractured angles hard to look from all at once. Except for one, of course, around which the rest revolved; it was centered across the fold, spanning the distance between staples. The back of a legal pad, the cardboard part. Thick magic marker words: both of him are yet real. The sideways happy face at the lower corner of the backflap was out of place, with its one lone feather reaching up from the back of its head. The reporter didn’t even touch it. She was more interested in who the him was, or were, or whatever.
Seth stared at the non-prediction, looked hard to Sally for an explanation, then got nervous and turned the page, where a reader had written in that Sally was not only a pagan throwback, but a public menace; the reader was the health inspector for greater eastern New Mexico. She had included a computer-generated graph showing how Sally’s ‘woefully inaccurate’ eating-of-human-flesh prediction last year had temporarily lowered per capita dining out, not to mention overloading the postal service with health concerns, health concerns she in turn had to allay singly. She noted that she had done this survey on her own time, too, thank you. When Seth got to the end of the health inspector’s letter, he dropped the tabloid then kicked it away, off his foot, out the bathroom door. He blew at it, trying to make it go farther. His hands were shaking. He hadn’t seen anything, he hadn’t seen anything. An episode, it had just been an episode. He tried to make out his wife’s shows from pieces of words, but then he was in the diner again, the lights dimming from the vacuum cleaner being plugged in, whining high, inhaling the thin surface off reality, him staring across the buffet table at the pasty-faced man with the stomach, then looking down at his own plate, at what Sally had said would happen.
Get it all out.
He screamed for his wife and still she wouldn’t come and hold his head by the temples and make him look away; he sang a song his grandmother used to sing in the fields, but it was no good against this. He was still in the diner, still dropping his plate and watching the pasty-faced man look down into the food bins and shape his mouth around the words once, then twice: Not again, please, not again.
The Fast Red Road — A Plainsong
The Fast Red Road — A Plainsong