(Broadway Books) $15As we watch Justin, the narrator of Walter Kirn's second novel, Thumbsucker, try to master a lifelong oral compulsion, we are taken on a long, meandering walk through his mid-'80s, suburban Minnesota world. What Justin tries to replace his thumbsucking with -- prescription meds, alcohol, smoking, fly-fishing, work, sex, religion -- are all variations on the same busy attempt to block out the disturbances of his dysfunctional adolescence.
That said, Thumbsucker is no beetle-browed novel-of-recovery, and is not about addiction the way David Foster Wallace's mammoth Infinite Jest was. Justin's behavior is a preexisting condition of his sprawling surroundings, and serves largely as a framing device to introduce us to the mad milieu of his various habits.
Thumbsucker is deadpan comedy in the vein of Charles Portis (Norwood, True Grit) or Thomas McGuane's hilarious first novels. Fitted with an orthodontic device, Justin starts mixing cough syrup and Ritalin and joins the high school debate team as the first of his replacement strategies. The adults he encounters are a mess: Beyond his martyr father and unmotherly glamorous mother are a pedophiliac debate coach and pop-philosopher dentist, who surround him with a world that is frighteningly funny and familiar to anyone who endured a suburban childhood in the Reagan years.
Kirn even preemptively pans his own book in the current issue of the quarterly Tin House. The bitterness and the comedy are both something of a surprise from this author. Kirn was raised a Mormon, and his first book, My Hard Bargain, feels like a gentle purge of his own strict upbringing, exploring a world hidden to most of us -- exotic and blandly white-bread at the same time. Kirn's first novel (and his best book), She Needed Me, was an astonishing, dead-serious story of a young couple who don't exactly "meet cute": She is on her way to an abortion clinic, he is the fundamentalist protester lying in her path. Ultimately, Kirn betrays the fact that his world view has crossed into the secular, but for the first nine-tenths of this book he gives the most thorough, true, and sympathetic portrait of an outwardly unsympathetic extremist I have ever come across. His is not the warm, transcendent, old-time religion of Robert Duvall's The Apostle, but the hard, mean hate of the suburban far right.
With Thumbsucker, Kirn is looking back in laughter. After hysterical episodes with a drug-dealing couple and their pot-smoking baby, and a set piece describing Justin's first job at a gas station (where Kirn positively channels Charles Portis), Kirn approaches the Church of Latter Day Saints from the outside, introducing us to its strange rituals and power games through the eyes of a convert. This episode lays to rest my wondering whether Kirn is a lapsed ("Jack") Mormon: After this book, he'd be smart to never show his face in Utah again. GRANT COGSWELL
LOST AND FOUND
CHRONICLE OF THE GUAYAKI INDIANS by Pierre Clastres, translated by Paul Auster
(Zone Books, 1998)Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians is about disappearance. Its author is dead; its subjects have long since vanished; and the translation was lost for 25 years. In the 1970s, the novelist Paul Auster began a translation of the Chronicle. There followed a series of chance happenings, like a plot from one of Auster's novels: Clastres was killed in a car accident; publication was delayed; the publishing company went bankrupt; and the sole typescript disappeared. Twenty-five years later, Auster was signing one of his novels when a fan handed him the translation, rescued from a second-hand bookstore.
A study of the nomadic Atchei tribe of Paraguay, the book is also a chronicle of their decline. Weary of being hunted (the Paraguayans prized them as slaves, even as late as the 1950s), increasingly hemmed in by roads and deforestation, the Atchei delivered themselves to the "protection" of a rancher, on whose land they lived out their end. The dozen-odd holdouts who chose to remain free in the forest, too lonely to continue their dissident nomadism, surrendered to the rancher on the very day of Clastres' arrival.
Thus Clastres' meticulously structuralist anthropology (birth ritual as play of binary opposites, Atchei religion as steely-eyed jungle existentialism) is interspersed with elegiac moments, acknowledging what is vanishing.
Two things save Clastres from a naïve valorization of the "noble savage." Good structuralist that he is, Clastres doubts the primacy of the Atchei's nomadic way of life, and argues that they are a displaced agrarian people, driven inland by European invaders. Thus their nomadism is only a late response to colonialism, and what appears to be "pure" is in fact the sign of a confrontation with the other.
Clastres also details the Atchei's cannibalism. While acknowledging the usefulness of the cannibal fantasy -- if the natives are cannibals, the colonist is all the more justified in converting, enslaving, or killing them -- Clastres claims the Atchei roasted and ate their dead. Their own meals were a chronicle of their disappearance: "They used their stomachs as the final resting place of their companions." DIANA GEORGE