The best stories create traditions, and this novel by celebrated Native American writer Gerald Vizenor is a marvelous conjunction of trickster stories and literary ingenuity. Chair of Tears is funny, fierce, ironic, and deadly serious, a sendup of sacred poses, cultural pretensions, and familiar places from reservations to universities. The novel begins with generous stories about Captain Eighty, his young wife, the poker-playing genius named Quiver, and their children and ...
The best stories create traditions, and this novel by celebrated Native American writer Gerald Vizenor is a marvelous conjunction of trickster stories and literary ingenuity. Chair of Tears is funny, fierce, ironic, and deadly serious, a sendup of sacred poses, cultural pretensions, and familiar places from reservations to universities. The novel begins with generous stories about Captain Eighty, his young wife, the poker-playing genius named Quiver, and their children and grandchildren who live on a rustic houseboat.
Captain Shammer, an extraordinary grandson reared on the houseboat and with no formal education, is appointed the chairman of a troubled Department of Native American Indian Studies at a prominent university. Shammer is a natural enterpriser and ironic showman in the tradition of trickster stories. He arrives at the first faculty meeting dressed in the uniform of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Native students celebrate his conversion of the department into an academic poker parlor and casino, and a panic radio station. The most sensational enterprise is the training of service mongrels to detect the absence of irony.
An irresistible novel of original ideas, Chair of Tears gets to the heart of questions about identity politics, multiculturalism, pedantry, and timely virtues.
Vizenor's latest (after Shrouds of White Earth) is an ironist's account of the pretense of modern academia as seen through the lens of the Native American Indian trickster tradition. The narrative has the semblance of novelistic unity, but each of the 12 chapters has its own logic, allowing readers to move from start to finish, or—perhaps for the more adventurous—to open at random and delve into whatever delightful episode they find before them. Peopled by a unique welter of characters including Captain Eighty and his wife Quiver ("the native maven of poker scenes"), who live on a ramshackle houseboat with their kids and grandkids, the book focuses primarily on "master of mockery" Captain Shammer, a grandson of Eighty and Quiver who is invited "to become the seventh and final chairman of the troubled and tormented Department of Native American Indian Studies" at a large university. While enlivening—if not necessarily saving—the department with various capers, including advocating on behalf of a pack of "irony dogs" that bark down professors in the midst of lectures, or supporting a deviant press that publishes blank books, Vizenor and Captain Shammer create a rollicking environment, though it occasionally suffers from too much detail. Still, the book's richness (think Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude) and the author's insider perspective (Vizenor is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley) make this an intriguing, fun, and intelligent read. (Mar.)
- Holly Carver
"In Chair of Tears Gerald Vizenor hands us a pitch-perfect send-up not only of Native American studies departments but of academia in general, the gaming industry and the publishing business."—Holly Carver, Wapsipinicon Almanac
Vizenor (Father Meme) is a much-accomplished author also prominent in Native American studies, but this new novel shows it wouldn't do to take any of that too seriously. On the surface, this is a family story: 16-year-old Quiver married a man 50 years her senior and bore five children, most of whom had more children; among Quiver's grandchildren are the narrator and his cousin Captain Shammer. But this is also a send-up of Native studies departments that drops the name of nearly every Native author of note. The Department of Native American Indian Studies at a university near the headwaters of the Mississippi has suffered mightily under its last six directors, and the self-educated Shammer is hired to turn it around. He shows up for his first day dressed as Custer. Soon, private offices have been banned, and grandma Quiver is beating the pants off scholars and federal agents alike in her high-stakes poker games. VERDICT Not the book with which to begin one's exploration of Native American fiction, but if you've read widely enough in the genre to get the inside jokes, there are lots of rewards here.—Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical and Community Coll., OH
Gerald Vizenor is Distinguished Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including Hiroshima Bugi (available in a Bison Books edition) and, most recently, the novel Shrouds of White Earth.