October 5, 2006KR Blog

On Eric Gansworth

The first thing that struck me about Eric Gansworth’s story “True Crime” (Kenyon Review Fall 2006), is the voice, characterized by an arresting blend of energy and mordant wit: “Their parents made an OK living doing the craft show circuit and exercising their treaty rights of being members of a sovereign Native nation. As such, they were able to sell souvenirs to the tourists who came to the U.S. side of Niagara Falls, the closest city to the reservation. My mom and I, on the other hand, were exercising our treaty rights as members of a soverign nation by living in a house that would have been condemned and bulldozed anywhere beyond the reservation’s borders.” It’s difficult to miss the way those words ‘sovereign’ and ‘souvenirs’ knock against each other in this passage, striking a dissonant note. The sovereignty must be severely compromised if the souvenir circuit is what is left for these persons to make their living on. One need read only a few paragraphs of the story to understand that those making their living selling souvenir versions of their culture’s artifacts have been consigned by forces outside their reservation to a status little better than the souvenirs they sell.

The characters referred to, whose parents make their living on the souvenir circuit, are the teenage girls who look after the narrator, in the childhood he recalls, while his mother makes a living cleaning houses. The story takes place after the narrator’s mother’s boyfriend has died, leaving them in straitened circumstances: “Ketchup soup thickened with day-old bread began to taste good after a while.” Our narrator’s thus doubly alienated, living on the reservation and farmed out to these girls who have little interest in looking after an eight-year-old boy. But his mother has little if any choice.

The narrator’s one source of power in his world is his ability to dole out information to his teenage caretakers about his cousin Roland, recently back from his stint in the Vietnam war. The teenage girls, for their part, exercise control by threatening to draw a face on a cornhusk doll, an act that, according to legend, would allow the doll to steal a soul and come to life. The source of the stolen soul could “be a nice old lady, could be a killer,” so you’d be taking your chances. Our narrator’s knowledge of his own people’s traditions is sufficiently sketchy that the girls can use such stories against him. While he hears about these traditions, sometimes almost as a kind of rumor, he has no one to initiate him into their depths and stronger resonances. It’s painfully fitting, then, that among of his major sources of culture are the various museums he visits: a Hollywood Wax Museum, the Frankenstein Museum, the Houdini Museum, the Believe It or Not! Museum. Like the figures in these attractions, he too lives in a state of suspension.

It’s when the girls take him to the Believe It or Not! Museum that he undergoes a kind of initiation after all. The special attraction is a “Giantess,” not a wax figure but an actual oversized woman greeting people and handing out signed photographs of herself. Our hero (for now he is on a quest) takes the opportunity to ask her if she gets to keep any of the money paid for the photographs. The “Giantess” points out that no one has ever asked her this before, and she explains that her payment is being allowed to live at the museum. After they talk a little further, the boy spends time thinking about what her life must be like, realizes that she “could never not be the Believe It or Not! Giantess.” The encounter stirs his imagination further, so that he considers her in relationship to the stories of Tallman, a figure he has heard about from his language teacher, Mrs. Crews, his one more or less reliable source of his people’s traditions. At night Tallman comes out of the woods and peeks in upstairs windows, offering reservation children their dreams come true in exchange for joining him in the woods. Our quester has never been much tempted by the thought; as he says, “I was not a big thinker.” But he starts to wonder what it might be like if the Giantess and Tallman were to get together. It could work, except that they live, “on opposite sides of the border.”

The source of synthesis is the boy’s own imagination. Bringing Tallman and the Giantess together in his own thinking becomes a way of understanding how someone living in internal exile (whether in a museum or on a reservation) can meld with a Native tradition. The synthesis leads to a new understanding, even a newfound courage: “Dusty never understood why I preferred that picture over the ones where she placed animal heads on human bodies, or why I could never introduce her to Roland or why that night, I no longer cared if she drew a face on any of her cornhusk dolls. I could take my chances. There were monsters and heroes everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time and you never knew who was who.” The picture in question is a photograph of a crime scene, a decapitated body in a ditch. Our hero prefers this photograph to those that his caretakers are always cutting out of magazines and hanging on their walls, photographs from advertisements, the Sears catalogue, etc. At least the grizzly photograph that the narrator prefers is a photograph of something real in the world, rather than a scene that has been overtly staged for the sake of selling a product. The photograph is also the most overt referent of the story’s title, “True Crime,” though it’s difficult to miss the truth of the crime that has decapitated this boy’s sense of the world and of his people’s traditions. It’s the crime that he’s spending his life working to overcome.