W. S. Penn, Author, William S. Penn, Author . Univ. of Nebraska $29.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8032-3731-5

Just in time for the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Little Big Horn comes this provocative if uneven collection of essays by Nez Percé fiction writer and critic Penn, who attempts, with commendable verve and insight, to take the measure of Native American studies today. Like many another successful academic (Penn is professor of literature and creative writing at Michigan State), the author is rather embattled and defensive in these works, and a bit chagrined to find himself at the heart of an often patronizing and reductive academy. Especially self-conscious about his precarious position as a Native American (Nez Percé is his publisher's designation; Penn prefers "mixblood"), Penn employs a number of strategies to "keep it real," including the compelling form of these 10 extended essays. Penn is a passionate advocate of the oral tradition and an enemy of "purity," whether of racial designation or literary form, and his essays often incorporate fictional elements, showing a healthy respect for anecdote and digression as methodological tools. He uses such techniques most successfully in the book's opening essay, "Tonto Meets Chuang Tzu," which combines fiction, essay and autobiography to illustrate and explain Penn's hybrid methods and goals. Yet even when (as in the rambling "Donne Talkin") it is difficult to separate illustrative digression and core substance, or when he takes Pagliaesque cheap shots at such disparate figures as Courtney Love, Richard Ford, Bjork and Amy Tan, Penn refuses to take refuge in jargon or doublespeak, and his attempts to negotiate complicated cultural thickets prove winning. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 08/27/2001
Release date: 09/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 240 pages - 978-0-8032-8782-2
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