This week I decided that I would reread "The Boy and His Dog Are Sleeping," just to see -- now that more than a year has passed -- if it were as good as I remembered. It was.
Three of Tim Barrus' books, out of an unknown dozen or more -- some of which sell for hundreds of dollars now -- were published under the nom de plume of "Nasdijj:" "The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams," "Geronimo's Bones," and "The Boy and His Dog are Sleeping." The first two,in my opinion, are rehearsals clearing the way for the third. A man is asked to take a boy, not to raise, but to care for until the boy dies because the boy has AIDS. He will never grow up.
Why take the boy? Because once the man WAS the boy. He'd been a suffering child and this was a way of getting his revenge: doing what the adults in his life should have done. Why tell us about it? Because we need educating. The power of this story comes from a combination of rage and compassion. In the midst of it, the author must protect the identities of his parents and the many boys he has known while teaching and house-parenting in the SW. (But now his parents have died. The boys must be nearly adults.)
So the story is simple. The man does his best for the boy, trying to pay the bills by writing. The man's wife and daughter are not with him but they are in support. Just as the man is exhausted and Awee is about to die, Crow Dog, a boy who did grow up, comes with the dog, Navajo. All this is not a great sacrifice, but rather a great love affair. Maybe it is time-limited but it is far from unrequited. And it really happened.
A small cluster of characteristics, esp. in men appears to make them more attractive. I would suggest that this triad is also characteristic of artistic success. Some call it "Demon Lover" or "Heathcliffe Syndrome." Also it is called the "Dark Triad," because it consists of three possibly genetic characteristics: narcissism, possessiveness, and scheming. These are at the heart of abusive relationships when they ARE dark, because they carry an emotionally magnetic intensity that intrigues others. But I would suggest that they can also be something good, depending upon intelligence and empathy.
For instance, narcissism is "all about me," but when informed by empathy ("I feel your pain") it can be powerfully connective. Possessiveness ("I own you") can also lead to protectiveness ("I will allow no one to hurt you") and scheming, the ability to form strategy in pursuit of a goal, is value-free. It's the realistic purpose, to what end, that gives it morality. I propose that Tim Barrus has inherited this triangle from his father, just as he inherited his father's strong body and mind, but that his mother's heart kept the triangle full of light. Barrus' empathy for Awee is due to his own childhood abuse and then the (self-inflicted in adolescence) shotgun wound to his abdomen. It is a kind of reliving. His possessiveness gives him the will to enforce the necessary AIDS regimen on Awee in spite of the boy's objections and complaints, and it is his defiant plotting in the face of medical authority that keeps the meds coming, even when they aren't medically prescribed, as well as charting their usefulness.
I see these as the underlying forces of what happens in this short, powerful book. But there are matters of style, description, dialogue and so on to consider, because this is writing, which is an art form. This book is true, but the memories are "displaced" and sometimes disguised to protect people, which is different from an "unreliable narrator" -- a story told by someone we feel sure is lying for their own ends. To me it seems clear that the events of the story happened and that they are as accurately described as they can be in a memoir, but that sometimes Barrus is Awee and sometimes he is himself. The emotional "facts" are true, authentic and real, but facts like the name of White People Town, the hotel, or the hospital are just left out. A few key people, dear to Barrus, have their real names: Tina, Kree, Navajo. If he had known that a stalker full of hatred for Barrus would threaten and harass them, he would have given them disguises the same as he did his mother and father. (If you write about real people, Richard Stern advised us, use reversals: switch genders, make the brunettes into blondes, give them new occupations.)
Awee is NOT nonexistent, invented. Barrus did teach troubled boys with considerable success because his occasionally rough life-style gave him strong street creds. The motorcycle didn't hurt either. He and Tina have fostered and mentored children all along, but to name individuals would be to expose them to hyena media with their own dark triads. Barrus' earliest attempt at redemption, fighting his son’s autism and FAS rather than AIDS, did not end in death but in despair when he couldn't save the boy and had to put him back into an institution. He was gutshot all over again. (Don’t make stupid distinctions between genetic and adopted children.)
Much of this book is dyadic conversation: Awee asks, Barrus tells. Such an unequal relationship is risky, but in spite of the boy’s neediness the story gives Awee great poise, considerable skill as a softball player, and even a little romantic episode of his own. In my experience with Blackfeet boys, this is not unrealistic nor unhealthy. It is also most common in our culture between a man and a woman who are in love, which is what gives it a sexual overtone even if there is no physical contact. We convert everything into sex, but the eroticism here is motherly: nibbling toes, smelling necks, brushing back hair, and constant cleaning -- like a baby. More than anything else, Barrus enfolds and gently rocks Awee as boy becomes infant again. This is both the beauty of the story and (perhaps) the source of some of the virulent jealousy it seems to trigger in some.
To repeat, my theory would be that Barrus' mother, a master gardener and a nurturer (this is in her obituary), was not able to break free from the dark triangle in her husband, partly because of her need to help him and partly because of a need for his shelter, but she was able to transmit enough of her good qualities to keep her son from being an abuser. (Freud called it "repetition compulsion." One can't escape, but one can transform.) Other forces helped: members of the art department at the university where Barrus hung out (people who did not color inside the lines), the hospital where Barrus' life was saved, and then the unfolding Age of Aquarius in San Francisco and Key West. Somehow he was a full participant in the throwing-off of social shackles while as a single parent raising the daughter from his first marriage in a way that produced a healthy, intelligent, contributing mother and teacher.
Two "tribes" or groups in America have survived through forming underground communities: Indians and gays. They are skilled at evading authority figures and some are generous among themselves with resources and knowledge. Some have a LOT of money. Some of them will attack full-force to maintain the secrecy. How do I know this? Oh, walking into rooms unexpectedly, having friends in those groups, teaching on the rez. They can be unreasonably jealous. I don't know specifics. I don't ask.
Why did critics attack Barrus viciously? Why did they insist on ferreting out contradictory facts? Why didn't they go after "The Education of Little Tree," the much earlier memoir-style fictional novel written under the pseudonym Forrest Carter by Asa Earl Carter, a one-time KKK member? (The book was bought by the University of New Mexico Press and has sold millions of copies, a huge windfall for an academic press. It also became a movie.) Or why not attack Richard Lancaster, the author of "Piegan"? NOT a nice man. Both of these writers endorsed the cultural illusion of the noble savage. Barrus harshly criticized the way the United States has treated Native Americans. Why didn't reporters go to the Navajo reservation and make a pitch for their needs?
Barely mentioned in the book is that Barrus himself was suffering from avascular necrosis. While Awee was dying, Barrus' bones crazed and shattered. The three Nasdijj books were written to pay for hip transplants to get him out of a wheelchair. (Memoir sells better than autobiography.) His publishers were fully aware of what he was writing and who he was -- they didn't write checks to Nasdijj and they didn't buy plane tickets for Nasdijj. But as soon as the media made accusations, they disclaimed all consent or encouragement. They abandoned their author as Barrus did NOT abandon Awee. Barrus reacted with outrage that scared people.
At the inevitable end of the book -- Awee's death -- Barrus escapes emotionally into a kind of nature mysticism. The last paragraphs are shattered triangles: the control is lost, the strategy fails, the words fall into near schizophrenic "word salad" of cryptic image and rhyme. He says, "the universe does not hear me" (the death of narcissism) and "death just cums" (the final eroticism). This is more than emotional -- it is religious in the broadest sense but not in the sentimental Hallmark tradition.
Barrus was Nasdijj for ten years. In the end, shunned for impropriety, he escaped to the future: video/vlogs. Still wrestling with crumbling bones but determined to avoid painkillers other than the traditional stuff like alcohol, he has gone international with a pack of videographers about the same age as army recruits. They help him put his shirt on in the morning. They "mother" him as he "fathers" them.
You can catch Tim and his crew on YouTube or Blip.TV. Look for Cinematheque Art. They win prizes in Europe.
PS. I could NOT get the link to work, but here's the url for the "Dark Triad" research: http://www.newscientist.com/channel/sex/mg19826614.100-bad-guys-really-do-get-the-most-girls.html