If you want to know what Tim Barrus’ Nasdijj books are like, don’t Google either one of his names: Google the book titles. There are three, “the blood runs like a river through my dreams” (2000), “The Boy and his Dog are Sleeping” (2003), and “Geronimo’s Bones” (2004). Somewhere around the last book Nasdijj was “revealed” as Tim Barrus. Barrus’ past as a porn writer and editor in San Francisco was used to help demonize him, and the Native Americans trying to defend their right to write their own stuff were encouraged to pile onto Barrus -- the charge being led by Sherman Alexie.
Barrus was not inclined to take all this lying down. Instead he fired back with an online guerrilla blog full of outrageous images and tales as he presumably shepherded a small group of outcast boys across the southwest, uplinking through his satellite phone like a war correspondent. Hard to know how much was what some people call “fact” since Barrus contains multitudes.
What few did was to read Barrus’ books, both as Nasdijj and not. Given that I’m an old lady entering her Gray Panther years, that the books are on the Internet for a buck each (except the early porn "classics," which run into the hundreds of dollars), and that I have time -- and given a former Unitarian minister’s sense of justice and lack of fear of atypical people, sexual or otherwise -- I thought I’d just read and review the books. I’d already read “The Boy and His Dog Are Sleeping” which I picked up as a remainder and thought was a good book. I know nothing about Navajo, but I’ve known the Blackfeet for fifty years and to me the book rang true. Maybe we put beans and beef instead of mutton on our Indian tacos, but a lot of the rest is just the same.
First I tried “Anywhere, Anywhere,” a pre-Nasdijj book about gay Vietnam veterans, and reviewed that. Again, I though it was a good book. By this time Barrus had seen some of my comments and we began to correspond. Nothing deep. “How is Navajo?” (The dog: she’s aging now.) “What a beautiful grandchild!” (His. He’s very proud of her!) Like that.
Yesterday I read “the blood runs like a river through my dreams,” which is really twenty essays, some quite short, all in the poetic and remembering mode of memoir. I see online that young people, including NA young people, are most likely to say, “I was disappointed that Barrus is not really half-Navajo, because I wanted him to be like me, but I love what he wrote.” I think they are responding in part to the moral dimension of this writing. He doesn’t bother with condemning “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll,” but rather mounts a scathing attack on unreliable parents and other authority figures and a world that in general preys on the weak while rewarding the powerful even more.
Every real writer has a little crux somewhere deep inside that constantly taps the core magma of the identity. One’s ability to feel that, shape it, and relate it to the lives of others is what creates good books. For Barrus, it appears to be his relationship with his father. Somehow, to some degree, the father/son relationship was one of oppression and punishment, and Barrus’ way of dealing with this has been to seek to nurture and to receive nurturing from other men. Most of the sophisticated indignants of the publishing world have assumed that meant sex, a turning away from women, but that is NOT what Barrus is expressing. He is addressing a father’s protection and guidance for a son, which he wanted and didn’t get in childhood. (He is happily married for the second time, has a happily married and productive daughter, and a charming toddler granddaughter.) His outrage is AGAINST men who use children for sex and being accused of that makes him crazy.
Writing about NA children on reservations is a problem. One can’t tell the truth. For one thing, no one will believe it even if you’re providing court transcripts of sworn testimony. For another, authority figures do NOT want people to know because it would mean change. And some of the tribal peoples themselves rightly suspect that such evidence would be used to demonize THEM. Now that the link between church and child abuse, or boarding schools and child abuse, has been proven beyond doubt, anyone who mentions them risks being identified with them. By not only disguising the children, but also himself, Barrus is protecting them from those constant “truth” snoopers unleashed by a sensationalist press and a relentless Internet. The youngsters are too vulnerable and could not resist reporters with cameras.
Somehow the two accusations that such media-feeding defamers are most fond of is that a writer “copies” or else pretends to be someone else. Aside from the facts that all writing is derivative of other writing and all writers assume a created identity when they write -- things that people qualified to write literary criticism know -- it is strange that these rather than the qualities of the writing itself should be of such little concern. Barrus writes in great romantic arcs of image. “Chahash’oh” is about taking his small son fishing and staying barricaded safely in a cabin while a “father,” “mother,” and two cubs fight to the death outside. The male bear kills the female and cubs but does not eat them. Maybe you remember overhearing your parents fighting? “Emergency Landing” is emotionally true rather than factually.
I think “Onante’s Foot” is a true event reimagined. It’s about a people who were punished by the Spaniard Onante who ordered the amputation of the right foot of the young men of the tribe. A huge statue of Onante on horseback turned out to be easily amended with a hacksaw.
“Flying Solo” is the story most like an Alexie tale of oddballs and misfits in high school, but it could be compared to Garrison Keillor’s reminiscences just as easily. “Half and Half” is a meditation on being a mixed-blood, prompted by stirring cream into coffee at MacDonalds.
Barrus, who actually did have a small damaged son for a while and did probably lose his first marriage to that trauma, has by now internalized both the son and a “good father” who knows how to help small fierce boys as in “Michif’s Tape.” “My Son Comes Back to Me” is about the same nexus. “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” is the obverse reflection of “And the Dreams Come Down Like Thunder in the Rain.” Why is this hard for critics to understand?
Two tropes recur. Fly-fishing is about control and skill, like writing. Horses are about power and freedom, like living in a truck named Old Big Wanda with a dog willing to share dogfood. (Barrus eats it with a fork, to show he’s not totally uncivilized.) When you have a little extra money, you buy new dolls for the two little homeless girls, Molly and Ringwald. These are things that Barrus knows, that he lived, that he could have lived as a Navajo migrant worker, but that he actually lived as a writer, scribbling onto legal pads with a pencil, selling bits of writing wherever he could.
I haven’t read Barrus’ “Genocide,” an anthology, but I am keenly aware of the American genocide of the native peoples as well as the creeping genocide of the poor of the world through AIDS and FAS. There are plenty of forces willing to convert death into profit, social disorder into convenient oppression.
If I were Tim Barrus’ publisher, I would re-issue the three Nasdijj books in one binding -- they aren’t big books -- along with an essay by some qualified person re-categorizing the trilogy with “Laughing Boy” by Oliver LaFarge (white) which won a Pulizer Prize, or maybe “Skins” by Adrian Louis (Indian), which became a movie. Maybe Sherman Alexie, who has had a change of heart about witch hunts, would like to write it. These stories need to be told and told and told, until necessary changes are made.