Thursday, February 3, 2011

Adrian Louis, Skins

Dakota Territory Week continues with this novel by Native American poet, short story writer, and former journalist, Adrian Louis. Published in 1995, this darkly entertaining story, set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota, presents a harshly comic vision of Indian life.

Louis immerses the reader in a compelling mix of Indian and white cultures and its resulting ambiguities, competing worldviews, and conflicted values. Rudy, the Indian cop, portrays these confusing conflicts beautifully, representing both the law in his tribal police uniform and vigilante justice in his blackface and pantyhose mask.

Revealing other dimensions of Rudy's confusion, Louis explores his relationship to the women in his life. Married and estranged from his wife, Rudy indulges his growing attraction to his cousin's wife, Stella, while he carries on with other men's wives as well.

Tashun-Kakokipa, Pine Ridge, 1891
Meanwhile, afflicted with hypertension, he takes meds that affect his sexual performance. Much of the novel traces the rising and falling cycles of his libido, all of which are unpredictable and seemingly under the spell of forces beyond him. It is no accident that Iktomi, the trickster spirit and shape-shifter, is a central theme in the novel. Appearance and reality, wisdom and stupidity, pride and shame, love and rage are all in a continuing dance for dominance.

Also at the center of the story is Rudy's relationship with his alcoholic older brother, Mogey. While casting an unblinking eye on the devastating impact of alcohol consumption on the reservation, Louis both condemns and forgives those who seek oblivion in the bottom of the bottle. In his hands, Mogey is a wonderful creation.

While there are vague allusions to the grim effect of two tours of duty in Vietnam, Louis doesn't excuse Mogey for choosing his path of self-destruction. Yet through his brother Rudy, the reader can begin to understand the deep love possible for someone unable to resist the pull of despair.

This book is not for everyone, but I like it for what it has to say about the Indian nations - in their own voices and without the moralizing or sentimentality of those who have never walked in their shoes. Also worth watching is the film Skins (2002, available on DVD), which is based on the book.

Picture credit: 

Coming up: Ryan Taylor, A Collection of Cowboy Logic


  1. This sounds interesting. I just ordered a used copy from amazon for $6.00, including shipping. A couple months ago I read another excellent novel about native american life, WINTER IN THE BLOOD by James Welch. I enjoyed it so much I also ordered 4 other novels by Welch.

  2. Yeah, I've never been enamored of reading the white guilt version of the Native American story. They're people, like any others. Not destroyed or extinct, but not causes or myths either. People. and they should be treated that way and written about that way.

  3. I think it is important that their stories are told.

  4. This one I have read. It is a very good read.

  5. You are opening me to a lot of good books. Thanks for this and other penetrating reviews.