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Weekly Alibi Goat Stories Etcetera

By Steven Robert Allen

OCTOBER 4, 1999: 

Men on the Moon: Collected Short Stories by Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona), paper, $17.95

It takes a while to get a feel for the language. His sentences are short and clipped, pretty much conversational, without any elaborate dressing. Ortiz doesn't mess around with fancy styles. His stories read the way people talk, which is his explicit intention. As he writes in his preface, "oral language is still the major way we affect each other." For this reason, these fictions read as if Ortiz were reading them to us.

The utter lack of artifice and pretension may initially seem alarming. There isn't any fancy word play, no weird rhythms, no secret riddles -- no cleverness, really, at all. This lack of artifice even extends to the overall structures of the stories. In this sense, what's collected in this book can barely even be called stories. Better to call them "Collected Memories," maybe, to more precisely explain what Ortiz is doing here; they seem more like remembered fragments of the author's personal past than carefully crafted fiction. Most don't have plots in any sophisticated sense. Most don't have snappy endings either.

Still, this collection ultimately holds up as a fine group of stories simply because it is so plain and honest and truthful. Once you catch the spirit, it's almost embarrassing that this type of story-telling doesn't feel more natural.

Simon J. Ortiz -- poet, fiction writer, teacher, essayist and editor -- hails from Acoma Pueblo. He's taught Native American literature and creative writing at various universities, and has been awarded NEA and International Writing Program Fellowships. In 1993, he acquired the title of World Heavyweight Poetry Bout Champion at the Taos Poetry Circus. He's been one of the major voices in Native American literature for the past 30 years.

The stories in Men on the Moon were written between the late 1960s and the early 1980s and are collected together here for the first time. Though Ortiz is best known as a poet, his short stories stand on the same thematic foundations as his poetry. The stories come out of his experiences at Acoma but also function as exploratory probes into the experiences of all Indian peoples alive in modern America.

Most stories express constructive rage at the plight of Indians -- out of place in urban San Francisco, working as migrant workers on the potato farms of Idaho, terrorized on reservations by the authorities, drafted against their will into Uncle Sam's army, stranded in VA hospitals, struggling to hold on to traditional beliefs and languages while listening to white anthropologists babble on about the ways of Indians. There are no apologies here. Ortiz doesn't soft pedal his criticisms or blunt the harshness of the lives he describes.

Yet he also occasionally includes the perspectives of sympathetic whites in these stories, suggesting that for Ortiz the problem is not with race but with attitude and culturally manifested callousness. On a broader level, his stories explore what ails our technologically obsessed, consumer driven society and suggest that there may be viable alternatives whispered in the muffled voices of America's oppressed, indigenous peoples.

That said, my favorite story in this collection is the one about the goat. "Distance" is about a man who ropes a goat named George to a post for several days after he butts the man's daughter to the ground and makes her cry. Because of the goat's behavior, the man places food and water for the other goats just out of George's reach. The daughter watches as the goat debilitates, becoming weaker and weaker from hunger and thirst, ribs eventually poking grotesquely out of his thin, malnourished hide. She hopes every day that her father will untie George and allow him to eat and drink again.

"Distance" reads like a parable. It may be viewed as a metaphor for unruly Indians who refuse to conform to the white man's world, but the story resonates far beyond this narrow interpretation. Simple language and profound insight combine together in a way that shows off Ortiz's talents at their best. Other stories in Men on the Moon possess these same qualities, but none of them are so perfectly executed as "Distance."

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