The rules of writing are quirky. It depends on who one's teacher was. I had been taught, many years ago, that one should avoid the use of adages-but in this case I find I must give in to the temptation. "You can't judge a book by its cover" totally applies to this book. When I picked up a stack of books for review, I have to admit Putrefaction Live by Warren Perkins was the one I least looked forward to. In fact, I was tempted to leave it behind. I was totally wrong. I read the entire book in one sitting.
One quickly empathizes with the main character in this book, who the reader gets to know intimately from spending so much time with him in his head. James Claw is a young man-the under-achieving brother and aspiring musician-on the verge of discovering himself. He's no scholar, like his brother Ben-that had been made clear to him through years of just getting by his classes and through the disappointment in the eyes of his parents.
The coloring that originally put me off of this novel quickly became appropriate. It had brought to mind either a zombie story or one highlighting the slow, agonizing death from uranium poisoning. James is definitely in danger of becoming a social zombie laid to rest from the uranium poisoning of a life unsatisfactorily lived.
In fact, it is partly his parents' fault that life has been a bit more challenging than those of the other rez-kids James grew up with. His mother is a loving, rug weaving woman from the Ganado area. His father is an Anglo principal who spent dutiful years working on the reservation-whose dream of spending a couple years of adventure on "foreign" soil and then moving on to teach in urban Anglo America was blind-sided by falling in love.
As a result, James and his brother Ben faced the pushing and testing that all mixed blood children go through at one point or another in their lives.
Then there was the violent death of one Rodney, one of James' childhood friends. It happened on the school grounds; and nobody expected the knife. James and Ben both witnessed the event-but James, who had encouraged his friend to "teach him a lesson," is now haunted by guilt.
There's a lot going on in this novel, and Warren Perkins writes of it as though he himself were James' father-someone who has clearly spent time on the reservation and among the Navajo people. He writes with authority about topics like bootlegging, alcoholism, single-parent families, cattle rustling, and increasing trends towards obesity and diabetes. The messages are in-your-face honest, yet woven into a completely entertaining novel in a manner that never gets preachy. In hindsight it is amazing how many topics Perkins stirs into the mix.
Failed love and having failed his parents drives James to return to the security and privacy of the reservation at his mother's house at a cattle ranch. But a young man needs money, even if it's just for gasoline to escape the bare-bones isolation another part of him craves. And so he falls victim to the business practices of a classmate, Nolan.
Nolan runs a little bootlegging business to support himself and his daughter, "the Monster," an epitath given out of pure love. Nolan is lucky to live with his mother, however having a baby pins one down, and James' appearance, complete with a truck, is a blessing. James becomes the mule for Nolan's business-and is ultimately caught.
But James is not a bad person-far beyond it. Choices made from necessity are replaced by those made out of love; love for his parents, his music-and another classmate, Angie. But even his relationship with a married woman, complete with two kids and one on the way, is a walk across quicksand. And the band, Putrifaction Live? The hope of a musical career there seems like a walk across quicksand without the convenience of branch or board.
Ultimately, James figures it all out. He learns that he is a scholar, immersing himself in the history of the Ganado area and of his Navajo people. Putrifaction Live sorts itself out not so much from James' guidance and skill as from stubbornness and Nolan's own legal problems. James makes it through the blind-leading-the blind association with a fanatical probation officer and a mother's complete dedication to survival for herself and her offspring and actually comes out just fine-even in the eyes of his parents and his brilliant brother.
Warren Perkins has been a physician for over 25 years and he continues to practice in Flagstaff.