Thursday, September 10, 2009

Favorite Passages: Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich

A few weeks ago, I read Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich's first novel, and fell in love. Her writing is very straightforward and simple, with moments of beauty and elegance. The book is complicated, telling the stories of two modern Native American families whose lives intersect in a myriad of important ways. Erdrich continues to use characters from these families through the rest of her books, so I will be picking up the rest of her work in the coming year. (Luckily, Erdrich is one of the few contemporary writers of literary fiction my library carries.)

There were so many characters and scenes to love in the novel that I had a bit of a hard time picking a scene. I chose this one because of its subtle heartache. One of the characters given the smallest "screen time," Lyman Lamartine, was particularly interesing to me, so I chose to do a scene with him. Here, Lyman's beloved brother, Henry, has just returned from Vietnam. The boisterous Henry that Lyman remembers has been replaced by a silent, violent figure who sits in front of the television all day. In this scene, Lyman tries to get Henry into action again through the use of a car the brothers bought together before the war. Obviously, things get tragic for these two characters as the novel continues (most of the storylines drip with tragedy, although the book is surprisingly funny and Erdrich never lets it get too heavy). But here, we see the way Erdrich just allows things to happen in her understated style. Enjoy! Oh, and for reference, this is in Lyman's voice.

From Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich:

Henry had not even looked at the car since he'd gotten home, though like I said, it was in tip-top condition and ready to drive. I thought the car might bring the old Henry back somehow. So I bided my time and waited for my chance to interest him in the vehicle.

One night Henry was off somewhere. I took myself a hammer. I went out to that car and did a number on its underside. Whacked it up. Bent the tail pipe double. Ripped the muffler lose. By the time I was done with the car it looked worse than any typical Indian car that has been driven all its life on the reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises - full of holes. It just about hurt me, I'll tell you that! I threw dirt in the carburetor and I ripped all the electrical tape off the seats. I made it look just as beat up as I could. Then I sat back and waited for Henry to find it.

Still, it took him over a month. That was all right, because it was just getting warm enough, not melting, but warm enough to work outside.

"Lyman," he says, walking in one day, "that red car looks like shit."

"Well, it's old," I says. "You got to expect that."

"No way!" says Henry. "That car's a classic! But you went and ran the piss right out of it, Lyman, and you know it don't deserve that. I kept that car in A-one shape. You don't remember. You're too young. But when I left, that car was running like a watch. Now I don't even know if I can get it to start again, let alone get it anywhere near its old condition."

"Well you try," I said, like I was getting mad, "but I say it's a piece of junk."

Then I walked out before he could realize I knew he'd strung together more than six words at once.

Note: Another favorite thing of mine involving brothers and a classic car, the dumb but wonderful TV show Supernatural, premieres its new season tonight. It's techincally not a book, but its mythology and the personal histories it builds for its characters make it almost feel like an epic novel. Lots of exciting things going on this month!

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