Summary and Analysis
Part 2: 26-Jan
This long chapter opens with a brief paragraph describing grunion spawning at high tide along the southern California coast. In contrast to the correlation of images with seasonal events in the preceding section, this image is unrelated to the time of year since grunion spawn at midsummer. The narrator emphasizes the helplessness of the tiny fish, an image that foreshadows what will be related concerning Abel. A detached, almost scientific voice narrates the passage. This omniscient narrative voice governs the chapter, but it moves in and out of individual points of view, notably Abel's, and, at one point, includes a first-person stream of consciousness passage.
After describing the small fish, the omniscient narrator moves to describe a storefront chapel called the Los Angeles Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission. There is a notice that two sermons will be preached by Rev. J.B.B. Tosamah: "The Gospel According to John" will be preached on Saturday, and "The Way to Rainy Mountain" will be preached on Sunday. The chapel itself is a squalid, dimly lit basement room with packing-crate furniture and a makeshift stage and curtain. When Tosamah appears, he is described as shaggy and catlike, with a mixture of pride and suffering.
Tosamah begins his sermon with an elaboration on the opening phrase of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word." In a long monologue, he reflects on the power of language and the emptiness of a pre-verbal world, quoting from the Hebrew creation story: "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." Then, along with a strange transformation in his tone of voice and appearance — from resonant, vibrant conviction to rasping, slumping indifference — his sermon changes and combines cynicism with reverence and awkward street language with high poetry.
Tosamah castigates the evangelist John and all his Christian followers for their corruption of language. Overuse of language cheapens it, he says, and people talk without meaning or thought, substituting invented ideas and nonsense for truth. Tosamah criticizes John for muddling and obfuscating with excessive references and digressions when Truth is actually profound and simple. It is assumed that the evangelist John was a white man, and Tosamah tells his congregation of Indians that they will be victims of the white man's manipulation of words unless they learn, like children, the power of the Word.
The reference to children reminds Tosamah of his Kiowa grandmother, and he mentions what a remarkable storyteller his illiterate grandmother was. He contrasts his grandmother's reverence for words and the sacredness of language with the multiplication and overproduction of language in the non-Indian world, which cheapens and pollutes language. Then Tosamah relates the story told him by his grandmother of the Tai-me: In a time of starvation, a man seeking food for his children hears a voice of thunder and lightning asking what he wants. He sees a being with deer's feet and covered with feathers. When the man explains that the Kiowas are hungry, the supernatural being — Tai-me — says that if he is taken with the Kiowas, he will give them whatever they want.
After telling this story, Tosamah returns to the theme of the Gospel of John, relating the origin and transmission of this story by word of mouth to the power of language to originate and make things happen. He again contrasts John's inability to come to terms with the power of language, which is older than silence, with the native appreciation for the power of language. As Tosamah appears to lose track of his thoughts, the narrator moves into his mind to describe a dizzying vision of sun, moon, and stars. Tosamah suddenly ends his sermon with the cynical advice to "get yours."
The omniscient narrator shifts abruptly to a question about why Abel should be thinking about fishes and the sea. Abel remembers his Navajo friend, Benally, talking about ceremonials that called upon natural wonders but feels that Benally's frame of reference does not relate to the sea.
Another shift of perspective brings Abel into view as he wakes up, chilled, on a beach near what appear to be warehouses or a construction site. Recovering from a drinking binge, he realizes that he has been severely beaten and that his hands are broken. He remembers falling from a horse as a child and his back being treated by an old woman who served as the village chiropractor. He thinks back to his pleasure in his body and its strength and ability.
Two poetic lines allude to the sexual encounter between Angela and Abel. Next, a brief section relates Abel's jumbled memories of the murder of the albino, the corpse, and his trial six years earlier.
The next paragraphs move back in time to Abel's trial and open with a fragment of Father Olguin's testimony. The priest, as well as the court officials, are baffled by Abel's explanation of his actions: It fits no legal or moral frame of reference available to them. Abel recalls having lapsed into muteness after telling his story, convinced that he had done the right thing because in his eyes the white man he killed was his enemy.
In the next few pages, the narration suggests Abel's thought processes as he drifts in and out of delirium. He becomes aware of his surroundings, then moves back to a ceremonial run at the pueblo. Fragments of other texts are interspersed with the paragraphs that reproduce his memory. These text fragments derive from the society that surrounds the Indian world: The reader encounters odd snatches of employment forms, psychological tests, social worker questions. Abel recalls being on a bus going off to war and segues into a memory of a social worker, Milly, and their love affair, which he recollects in erotic detail. Milly is kind but naive. She believes in the clichés of the American Dream: a Second Chance, the Brotherhood of Man, Honor, Industry. Abel regains consciousness to hear the roaring of the sea, a sound which seems about to overcome him.
The narration then shifts abruptly back to Tosamah and the congregation about to begin a peyote ceremony. Tosamah begins by reciting scientific information about the peyote plant. Again, his language is a strange mixture of scientific precision and awkward slang; he has also painted his face in a striking, garish design. The ceremony is minutely described, including the altar, drum, and other accoutrements, as well as the contents of Tosamah's paraphernalia satchel (fan, drumstick, cigarette papers, sage), and the rolling of cigarettes and the blessing of incense. The central event of the service is the eating of peyote buttons. Following this communion, the participants drum, sing, and seem to ride a crest of overwhelming emotion. The prose suggests the ecstatic visions that the participants are having. The participants, including Ben Benally, volunteer spontaneous testimonials. At midnight, the effects of the drug begin to wear off. Tosamah goes into the street and blows four piercing blasts on an eagle-bone whistle.
The narration turns again to Abel. Fully awake and in pain, he recalls how his thumbs were bent back and popped out of their sockets. He is cold and shivering, flopping like the small fish described at the beginning of the chapter. The next section is a short paragraph recollecting an old woman called fat Josie, who comforted Abel with vulgar antics and coarse humor to distract him from grief at his mother's death. The single word "Milly?" intervenes in this reverie.
A section follows in which the voice of the omniscient narrator recounts the courtroom scene and the testimony of one of Abel's fellow soldiers regarding Abel's foolhardy courage under fire; Abel had stood up alone to a tank and appeared to do a kind of "war dance." Abel recalls resenting the soldier's presumptuous attempt to speak for another person. Again the single word "Milly?" interrupts the narration, which then returns to Abel and his mangled body. He lapses again into unconsciousness.
The next section replicates even more closely the confusion of Abel's thoughts. He recalls a duck hunt with Vidal, addressing his brother as if the two were together still. Thoughts of Milly return and become mixed up with the memory of the duck hunt; then, he remembers an afternoon of lovemaking and his concern to please her, both erotically and by getting a job. Another passage returns to the cold, fog, darkness, and pain he is experiencing, and then his mind drifts back to his initial sexual encounter with Milly at her house. Paragraphs set off in italicized type alternate with paragraphs in roman type for these passages, suggesting that the narration is moving inside Abel's consciousness in order to follow the troubled association of his thoughts. However, some of the italicized passages are themselves very poetic descriptions, reminiscent of the omniscient narrative voice at the beginning of this chapter, perhaps suggesting some vast, overwhelming sea of consciousness into which Abel's pain-wracked mind has been submerged.
Abel's memories then segue into a long first-person monologue spoken by Milly, in which she describes her childhood of grinding rural poverty and her father's hatred of the unyielding land, her brief marriage, and the death of her daughter, Carrie. It is not clear from the context whether Abel is represented as remembering Milly saying these things, or whether this is one more text inserted into this chapter, composed of a heterogeneous assortment of passages with different sources, points of view, and narrative strategies.
Finally Abel awakes and resolves to get help. He crawls into the back of a truck and rides for a while, then waits in shadows for other transportation. The cold and pain again drive him into unconsciousness as he imagines or sees Milly and Benally coming towards him.
A.A. Kaul Office Supply Company the business that has a storage facility upstairs from Tosamah's chapel.
spawns the silverfish are releasing their mass of eggs.
Priest of the Sun a designation for Tosamah.
"In principio erat Verbum" "In the beginning was the Word" (Latin).
Genesis the first book of the Hebrew scriptures, source of the creation story.
Great Spirit an expression non-Indians have used to allude to Native peoples' object of worship.
Jerusalem the sacred city of the Hebrews.
Levites in Hebrew tradition, members of the tribe of Levi; the priests responsible for worship.
Pharisees in Hebrew tradition, members of a strictly observant group that followed written religious laws but also observed rules handed down through oral tradition.
Moses the great lawmaker and visionary leader of the Hebrew people.
Philip, Andrew, Peter apostles, followers of Jesus.
Kiowa a people who migrated from the Yellowstone area to the southern Plains; noted for their horsemanship and bravery in war.
Tai-me the sun dance image, called by Tosamah the sacred fetish of the Kiowa people.
"Beautyway" the English name for one of the major Navajo ceremonials; these are extremely elaborate curing rituals involving hundreds of songs and prayers, body painting, sand painting, dancing, making sacred objects, and relating important stories. Their purpose is to cure disease-mental, moral, spiritual, or physical.
"Bright Path," "Path of Pollen" phrases that recur in many Navajo songs, signifying a proper, correct, enriching mode of behavior, the way for humans to move appropriately from youth to old age.
Orient Asia, the East.
fetish an object with spiritual or magic power.
Bull Durham a brand of tobacco sold in plugs for chewing or flakes for making hand-rolled cigarettes.
Sioux a family of languages spoken by the Dakota, Winnebago, and other Plains nations.
Algonquin Algonkian refers to a family of languages spoken by Cree, Ojibwa, and other peoples with homelands in the northeast woodlands. Bowker's use of this term shows his ignorance, as neither Abel nor any other character in the book is a speaker of any Algonkian language.