February 2008

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

Fast Cars and Frybread: Reports from the Rez by Gordon Johnson

Gordon Johnson’s Fast Cars and Frybread is a slim volume of collected columns from the Press-Enterprise in Riverside County, California spanning 1993 to 2000 -- forty-three of them, to be exact. Johnson is a Cahuilla/Cupeño member of the Pala Indian Reservation. In Johnson’s introduction, he mentions his ambition to pen “life moments [he] wanted to rescue from change.” Casinos, from Johnson’s point of view, dramatically altered reservation life and culture, thereby prompting him to detail reservation life before their advent.

Johnson’s Fast Cars and Frybread is a quiet book -- filled with reminiscences of his childhood, of ceremonies and friendships. Each column, obviously written to stand alone, is now a chapter but few extend beyond two or three pages. Therefore, the individual chapters read more like meditative snapshots than free standing stories. Johnson appears, at times, to be more chronicler than storyteller. The act of writing is, in this instance, a purposeful exercise to convey a legacy of memories to his children and grandchildren.

In Fast Cars and Frybread, the landscape, familial love, poverty, food (both traditional delicacies and reservation cheese) are all evoked with an insider’s perspective. Johnson’s narration is spare, but nuanced. Sometimes, his observations are delivered with an unadorned directness, “Farther along the sandy trail, we passed the Eagle Lodge, a sweat house put up four years ago for a group vision quest. I went four years ago for a vision quest. I went four days without food or water here, sweating and praying every night. Quite an experience.” Johnson’s narration enables the reader to experience or understand something of "Indian life" without pandering to a voyeuristic appetite.

The other strength of Johnson’s writing lies in his deft descriptions of wildlife with arm with the precision of a naturalist and lyricism approaching poetry: “Rain clouds, blackened by bad intentions, rolled across the sky. A covey of valley quail scrambled in the winter-green underbrush and the leaf mold crackled under their feet. As we got closer, they exploded into the air, stubby wings a blur.”

Fast Cars and Frybread may not appeal to every sensibility. There are few plot lines or involved narratives, the individual chapters sometimes feel insubstantial, somehow hampered by their very brevity. At times, though appealing, Johnson’s self-effacing demeanor, evident in chapters like “Dishing Out Advice: A Hazard of Getting Older” undercut the force of his commentary -- social and personal. Ironically, if Johnson had an iota of misplaced or inflated self-regard, it might be easy to dismiss Fast Cars and Frybread as a vanity project. It is instead a book that the curious or interested should read; Johnson does manage to accomplish the preservationist task he set for himself.

Fast Cars and Frybread: Reports from the Rez by Gordon Johnson
Heyday Books
ISBN 978-1-59714-066-9
133 pages