Viet Thanh Nguyen reviews Christopher Sorrentino’s The Fugitives. Originally posted as a New York Times Sunday Book Review on February 19, 2016.
Kat Danhoff is a reporter from Chicago. The fact that she is also Native American is, as she might say, irrelevant; although she does not deny it, neither does she profess it. The effect is that she passes as someone who is not Indian. As her childhood friend Becky puts it, “You went off the reservation, that’s for sure.”
In other words, Kat is a fugitive. She also happens to be in pursuit of a fugitive, Jackie Saltino, a mobster who might have stolen $450,000 from an Indian casino. He might also be passing himself off as John Salteau, a Native American storyteller who entertains children and their parents at a library in northern Michigan, particularly with tales of the trickster Nanabozho. On seeing him for the first time, Kat thinks: “He could be an Indian. He could be an Italian, or a Jew, or an Arab, or an Armenian, for all she knew. . . . His true identity may have been the story’s hook, but it wasn’t the point. The point, she reminded herself, was the money, the theft, the crime.”
That is also the point of Christopher Sorrentino’s elegantly constructed new novel, “The Fugitives,” his fourth work of fiction. On the surface, it’s a contained blend of literary fiction and crime thriller about Kat Danhoff, John Salteau/Saltino and another runaway or fugitive, Alexander Mulligan III, otherwise known as Sandy. He is a refugee from the literary high life of New York City, a famous white male author — there’s no other way to put it — who has come to northern Michigan to hide from his past and write a novel. “How well can we know someone?” he thinks, the classic question of the unreliable narrator. “Each of my books considered questions of identity — its formation, its instability, its highly contingent state.”
Likewise, “The Fugitives” is deeply concerned with the identities of its three major characters, each of whom hides a secret. Kat’s background is revealed early, but the secrets of the other two will not come out until the satisfying, bloody end.
And blood is important, considering this novel’s interest in racial identity, particularly that of Native Americans and arguably that of the white male novelist. The first words of the novel, from Salteau, are: “This is long ago in the history of Anishinabek, the name we call ourselves. You all are familiar with Ojibway, or Chippewa. But like the private name one is called within his family, Anishinabek is the name we use among ourselves.” Salteau’s voice, which positions his audience as non-Native American, is both elevated and undermined by Sandy, who comes to hear him for inspiration. For Sandy, writing a clear, simple description is often a tortured process whose labor is hidden from the reader. He assumes that when Salteau makes storytelling look easy, it really is easy, the stories pouring forth from “a tap drawing from deep in the lizard brain.” Funny, because Sandy’s brain is also somewhat reptilian. Sandy certainly thinks highly of himself, even as he confesses to leaving his wife and children behind after a disastrous love affair that made headline news. He also talks a lot — imagine the voice of a novelist-narrator in a Philip Roth book, minus much of the charm — but his authority is undercut by Kat. On first encountering him, she thinks he might be “retarded” if not for his “awesomely weird monologue.” He may believe himself to be a slick New York writer, but to her, he looks like a “big dumb yokel.”
Sandy’s whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality are grist for the novel. He reminds the reader, and perhaps himself, of these elements of his character by his generous use of common obscenities when it comes to women. These words are the basis of his first monologue, which melts into a disquisition on the part of his lover’s body that calls up the “voodoo drumming” of desire. Something is seriously wrong with this guy (and not necessarily his sex drive, since Kat has a fairly strong libido herself), but what it is he will not admit to himself. He disguises the black hole in his memory with humorous insights about the writer’s dilemma. In his case, he is hounded by an agent, an editor and a patron all eager for him to deliver the novel for which he has already been paid a substantial advance. The writer, as both Sandy and Sorrentino show, cannot escape from capitalism and its corporations, which have taken over New York publishing and saturated hearts and minds. “I wasn’t suffering from writer’s block,” Sandy confesses to himself. “I was suffering from oversatiety and the eagerness to experience emptiness again, so that I could refill it.”
That description of desire could equally apply to the gamblers at the nearby Indian casino from which Saltino might have stolen. The casino “was just another of the hustles that Indian culture had been reduced to,” Kat thinks. “Blankets, pots, storytelling, casino gambling. It amused her that it was the last that struck so many people as being particularly profane” — possibly because the real profanity is not commercialized gambling, but that Indians have been forced to turn to it as a result of suffering conquest and dispossession. The novel does not mention that uncomfortable history. Does it need to? This is Michigan, home of Hemingway, whose name and fiction are referenced by Sandy, one white guy to another. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Becky’s description of the casino’s corruption includes the cliché that what is visible is only the “tip of the iceberg.” Hemingway’s famous writing advice was to show only the tip of the iceberg. Genocide is a hell of an iceberg.
If nonIndians have a hard time remembering that the mass murder of Native peoples made the American dream possible, then you can see why Kat has come to believe that a politics of “identity was a trap” and that what matters is “the money, the theft, the crime.” But what exactly is the crime in question, and how will it be revealed? Narrative inevitably plays a role, as you might expect when the fugitives of Sorrentino’s title include a reporter, a novelist and an oral storyteller. The trickster god Nanabozho, meanwhile, offers a possible clue to the nature of the crime. In Salteau’s telling, Nanabozho gives you what you ask for, which is the last thing you need. For Sandy, at least, that bad gift might be capitalism. He has been lathered with money and fame for his novels, which is enough “to reveal all the potential for vulgarity” he possesses.
Sorrentino — whose second novel, “Trance,” was a National Book Award finalist in 2005 — raises all of this in a novel deliberately crafted to look smaller than it is. Given that big novels often seem to warrant attention just for their size, it is its own kind of daring for an author to aim for the understated, the concise and the perfectly joined. Like one of Nanabozho’s simple, spare tales, Sorrentino’s novel might be a little deceptive because it disguises its complexity. Those tricked by Nanabozho or Sorrentino are guilty of not listening closely enough. The trickster is a cunning storyteller, as is Sorrentino. Not that he’s just some smart guy who writes excellent sentences. He also delivers what any reader of a thriller would expect. Rest assured that by the end of the book guns are drawn, shots are fired and we finally hear the voice of the dead.
By Christopher Sorrentino
322 pp. Simon & Schuster. $26.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of a novel, “The Sympathizer.” His new book, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” will be published in April.
A version of this review appears in print on February 21, 2016, on page BR19 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Cunning to Spare.