Looking for luck on the reservation

March 02, 1994|By Michael Boylan | Michael Boylan,Special to The Sun

Louise Erdrich's latest novel falls in the path of her other pTC novels -- "Love Medicine," "The Beet Queen" and "Tracks" -- by examining a group of Chippewa people living on a reservation over the past century. If one views these novels as a group, then they represent a rich body of interconnected characters and events.

"The Bingo Palace" creates an interesting love triangle between the three main characters of the book: Lipsha, Shawnee Ray and Lyman Lamartine. Lipsha is young and has returned to the reservation, only to fall in love with Shawnee Ray. Lipsha is adrift and searching for his identity. He goes to work for Lyman at the bingo hall and has a supernatural experience in which he confronts an ancestral spirit. This is one of the keys to Lipsha. In order to work out his fate, he must discover his past.

Shawnee Ray is a young woman who has had a child with Lyman. When she was pregnant, Lyman refused responsibility for the boy, but now he wants to change all that.

Shawnee Ray is not so sure. She has plans of her own. She has skill as a clothes designer and also hopes to leave the reservation to go to college. In these scenarios, there is no room for Lyman. Now, she is trying to win a contest with a dress she has designed. The contestants must create the dress and dance in it at a tribal ceremony; the prize money she might win could be her ticket away from the reservation.

Lyman has chosen the way of material wealth -- he's a successful small-time businessman on the reservation. He has interests in gas stations, stores and, most of all, the bingo hall.

Lyman lived much of his early life in the shadow of his brother, but when his brother died, Lyman suddenly found his way via commerce to self-identity.

Among the questions raised in "The Bingo Palace" is that of luck -- what is it and how does it relate to one's free will? How much is in one's power and how much is just moving this way or that in the tide of events, which is stronger than any of us?

This is a particularly resonant question in American-Indian communities, which have been ruthlessly treated over the years by mainstream American society. Those exterior forces are always stronger than anything that could be done. The chapters that describe each main character's "luck" interact nicely with the general story.

Another powerful theme is the interaction between the natural and the artificial. The natural is associated with the spiritual. One seeks self- knowledge via communion with nature and with one's ancestors. Then there is the artificial. In this path, one can gain another kind of power: the power that money and civilization exert.

Lyman has chosen the artificial, and Lipsha has chosen the natural. Shawnee is torn between. The projected Bingo Palace (a larger and more commercial version of the present bingo hall) represents Lyman's idea of personal fulfillment.

The principal shortcoming of the novel is an unsatisfactory resolution of the story. Ms. Erdrich tries too hard to make her heady ideas conclude in ways that have universal significance, and the ending of the book does not fit with the story as presented earlier. This is unfortunate, because the rest of the book is superb.

Ms. Erdrich is at her best when her planning and control are opaque. It is the characters, after all, and not the plots, that have been her forte in her previous books. So, also, here it is the characters, in their unforced interactions, that are the novel's strength. Despite its ending, "The Bingo Palace" remains a compelling novel.


Title: "The Bingo Palace"

Author: Louise Erdrich

Publisher: HarperCollins

-! Length, price: 274 pages, $23

Mr. Boylan is a writer who lives in the Washington area.

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