January 26, 2014

Book Review: Stones from the Creek

Stones from the Creek, Rick Levine's new book, is a series of loosely-linked short stories about the United States during the period between the Spanish-American War and the onset of WWI. It is a splendid venture into relatively uncharted territory for radical fiction.

But permit me to digress for a moment. This is, if memory serves, the first book review in over 500 posts here at Fire on the Mountain, dating back to 2006. In general, it strikes me that there are two reasons to write a book review (at least, if someone isn't paying you to).
A. One has views and insights to offer its other readers, striving to engage in thoughtful discussion across time and space.
B. One wants to get people pumped up to go and read the damn book.

Let's be clear. This is an Option B review. Stones from the Creek is not only a fine and in many ways remarkable work, but it is self-published, and by a first-time author to boot. That means that unless fans beat the drums for it—hard—the sucker will have a hard time finding the audience it deserves.

Now, back to the book's considerable merits. The 14 loosely-linked short stories here present a unique panoramic view of the US as monopoly capital expands its grip and becomes modern imperialism. Yet the strength of the panorama is that only one story deals with on developments at the commanding heights and that one at twin removes, telling a tale of the Crash of 1907—as an Isaac Beshevis Singer-style Yiddish folktale.

For the most part, the reader becomes engaged with a set of ordinary people, many of them actual historical figures, who are just as extraordinary as the everyday people whom we meet in life, or in the struggle. More extraordinary, because they come from cultures and backgrounds far removed from our own. 

One of my current favorites is "The Giant Believed Her," whose center is the Apache chief Alchesay. It unfolds as the story of the attempt to revive traditional tribal culture in a guise which may just conceal it from the genocidal intentions of the dominant ndaa (white) power structure. The reader is drawn to understand the behavior, the manners, appropriate to an Apache man in this period, and to celebrate Alchesay's victory. Then further reading or simple reflection reveals a universal theme many of us are dealing with. How, in a period of setback, of defeat, do we decide what fights can be won, what tactics will serve, how the base can be mobilized?

Other figures who shine include a buffalo soldier who rescues Teddy Roosevelt's ass at San Juan Hill and is given a hard a way to go as a reward, the four-year-old Paiute girl whose life is changed when her grandmother slashes the throat of a BIA investigator, and the young wife heading the procession carrying the statue of San Miguel to its home in a New Mexico church, 

"The Sun Shone So Brightly" is perhaps the closest to a traditional work of "proletarian fiction," both in its subject matter, class unity forged in a miners' walkout, and in its optimism. But Levine is a materialist, and history is history. Two of the most unsettling stories feature Smedley Butler in the "banana wars" of Central America. As Major General Smedley Butler, he is known for his declaration in the 1930s, "I was a racketeer, a gangster for capital." Butler is hero to many of us, and especially members of Veterans for Peace. The stories tell, from the point of view of then-Captain Butler and of the Hondurans he is sent to repress, exactly what he did that caused him decades later to adopt that self-description. 

The closing story, "In the Midst Of The Valley," takes up one of the central themes of the book, race. White supremacy and the color line must lie at the heart of any honest look at the history of this country. Few works of fiction that I know of explore the complexities of this reality with depth of Levine's 30 page look at the question of indigenous nations, African descent, white privilege and political power through the experience of a man pursuing a dream of "a New Africa, a Black Zion."

To return to my digression at the start of this review: Go and read the damn book!

You can find it at Amazon.com in Kindle or dead treeversions. If you patronize Facebook, go and "Like" the "Stones From The Creek" page, and catch some snippets from these stories. 

[Full disclosure: While it would be stretching things to say that Rick Levine and I are friends, he is an acquaintance. And a really good and interesting writer.]

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