Sunday, August 12, 2007


When I was a kid in a house lined with my father’s books, I ate every meal across from a shelf with a book called “Over the Top” by Empy. It took years before I began to wonder what the cryptic title meant and more years before I finally took it down and read it. The book is about WWI and “over the top” means climbing out of the trenches to charge the enemy. WWI was one of the worst wars ever -- until Vietnam. My father was a touch too old for WWII. My classmates (High School 1957) were a bit too young for Korea but dated guys who were in that war. My brothers each spent four years in the Marines, but just before the real combat in Vietnam. I had one student killed in Vietnam. The rez is full of Middle East vets, both male and female, each with their eagle feather.

I’ve continued to read novels about war, though they probably haven’t had as much impact on me as those old WWII black-and-white patriotic movies, until this last spate of un-motivating war movies: “Saving Private Ryan,” “Blackhawk Down.” “Jarhead,” “Platoon,” and so on. Watching them is part of my counter-phobic syndrome, finding and confronting terror, trying to store up strategies for survival from other people’s experiences.

When I blogged previously about Tim Barrus, I suddenly found myself emailing back and forth to him in a perfectly sensible friendly way. None of the fireworks. He worried about my cat’s abscessed foot. Then I began to get curious about his other books. The earliest black leather porn classic sells for hundreds of dollars, so that was out, but “Anywhere, Anywhere” -- his Vietnam novel -- was available used for $3. (Dispatches by Michael Herr is available used for $3.50 but I already read that quite a while ago. Jarhead was being remaindered but the movie pulled it back into print.)

The central narrative line of “Anywhere, Anywhere” is that a small group of Vietnam soldiers barely survive combat and one, Chris, is shot in the spine as he evacuates in a copter. “Boss,” who is the commanding officer of the little group, spends time in a VA mental ward because of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and finds Chris wheelchair-bound. They set up housekkeeping, by now accepting that they are gay in New York at a time when that’s a defiant political statement. Chris becomes a wheelchair basketball star and slowly the survivors of the group -- well, regroup.

Barrus uses his own name here and never claims to be a veteran. He is writing a first-person novel, shaping stories partly from the media and partly from other people, with his own imagination and ideas about how things go. (This is written in 1987, before Nasdijj.) His key idea is using the lyrics of songs of the times, especially those of Elvis Presley, as a running theme and commentary. For those who are cynical, if these quotes were removed from the text, the book would be a lot shorter. For those who think it works, every juxtaposition of lyrics with plot incident hones the edge of irony. I think it works very well though these are not my favorite songs or even music genre. The familiar phrases become a chant, a litany.

Is it horrible? Any emergency responder could tell you stories as bad. One of my Portland hippie friends told about being at a house where a guest brought in a paperbag from his VW van and spilled out a little heap of Vietnamese ears he’d collected. My friend said they looked like dried apricots. She said the guy was proud. But this is not about that sort of thing except in an oblique scene-setting way. Of course, here on the rez we know the story of the "Baker Massacre" in which HeavyRunner's village was shot to piece and then "zippo'd. (Burned.)

The story is in five parts. First is the VA mental ward and some exposition. Second outlines the teenaged soldiers who happen to be “tunnel rats,” those who go down into the tiny labyrinths inhabited by VietCong in order to clean them out. Third is an attempt at reunion with Chris’ family over Christmas. Fourth, earlier in time, is the guys back in Vietnam but beginning to reconstitute a family from orphans. The leader here is Jimmy Bo from the Bronx, a huge black man -- that samurai-type who loves children. In Part Five the ground is laid for “The Boy and his Dog Are Sleeping” as the Boss and Chris prepare to follow Jimmy Bo out to the SW to run an orphanage for Vietnamese kids.

This is not a pornographic book, though it probably qualifies as erotic. I learned no new cuss-words or sexual techniques. It was more about love than sex. Clearly it was about young men nearly destroyed and lost to conventional patterns of family (mom, dad, kids) but still obeying the instinct to form small protective bonded communities -- the ultimate survival technique. Women are there, but aren’t sexual (nuns and biological sisters).

Google didn’t yield any reviews or even any particular comment about the book. I don’t remember hearing about it at the time, though I was serving a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The UUA has accepted homosexual members and clergy for a long time, but is not centered on them as is the Metropolitan Community Church. I have preached and even offered communion at the MCC but in the interest of universality, finding the heart of what it is to be any spiritual human being. Sort of like being a chaplain for a mixed group of people in a city hospital -- not just mixed denominations but mixed religions and nations. No need to be counter-phobic in such a situation.

Yet these books by Barrus, especially the ones with the pen name of Nasdijj, have created a major firestorm. Or was Tim himself stoking the flames, knowing that notoriety sells better than competence? It can’t be the content of the stories. And these are novels rather than fabricated journalism. Partly what’s going on, I suspect, is the over-the-top reaction by Native Americans themselves, often low-blood-quantum people springboarding themselves into fame and (they hope) fortune. The Nasdijj scandal paid off well enough for Barrus to have hip replacement surgery on both legs, escaping the threat of a wheelchair himself. But in spite of winning prizes, the book would never have gotten to the news without him being “unmasked.”

The dark side is that Manhattan publishers don’t like their investors frightened and most of the investors just want their profit -- no funny business about scandal. (Republicans.) Anyway, as Tim notes, the Manhattan publishing editors can be “nice ladies” who are secret cut-throats. He evidently saw through Judith Regan before the O.J. scandal. Still, everyone knows of writers who didn’t make money until he or she was a scandal. A list of scandalous writers would be very long indeed and includes many of the people we consider to be geniuses.

So is Tim Barrus a genius? He certainly has the earmarks of passion, courage, skill. But if one is defined as a “gay porno writer” or a fake Indian, can one break out of that box into something new and personal -- worth print in an era that uses print to wrap fish and start fires? Or must he change media? He’s doing that on YouTube where I assume you will be at least semi-shocked, though I don’t know how that’s possible in a world where child soldiers hack off the limbs of even younger children.

I can’t watch YouTube -- I’m on dialup and have limited software. I’m interested in print, which is why I ordered “Anywhere, Anywhere.” The title takes on new meaning when you think of Tim posting blogs from Mexico or some other outpost, using portable satellite links like a journalist in the desert.

I’m losing my taste for war stories. Is there anything more pornographic than a young woman pilot bombing villages through electronic guidance systems, watching a screen instead of the world? But if you ran across a copy of “Anywhere, Anywhere,” it would be worth some time. An interesting book to teach in a writing class.


Anonymous said...

Interesting to read a measured comment on this generally quite un-measured writer. In one respect, though, I think you're off-target: "Nasdijj" got far more press and prestige as a Native American writer than, with the exception of the mini-firestorm fanned by the Frey-flames, the revelation that he was a fraud ever did - reviews in the New York Times, pieces in anthologies, and the list of prizes and honors that so came back to haunt him (and us).

As for YouTube, don't worry that you're missing too much; the videos are chaotic but not especially shocking.

For more on Nasdijj, Barrus, and his other identities, check out the blog he formerly used and that someone picked up on when he abandoned it:

prairie mary said...

I think that as a publicity gambit, scandal is losing its energy. So far as NA writing goes, the book world has been pretty capricious about who they lift up and who they throw down. Being "nice Manhattan ladies," they don't really know anything about Indians but the stereotypes.

I was following the old Nasdijj blog and am now following the new one: "" There are some others, including that of his wife, Tina Giovanni.

The Native American literature listserv that was so lively ten years ago has about flickered out.

Prairie Mary