October 15, 2000

A Soul That Won’t Heal

The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams: A Memoir
By Nasdijj, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

*(It turns out that the author of this book, Nasdijj, was a fake. See the article, “Navahoax,” in L.A. Weekly.)

Talk about a hard life. Nasdijj, the son of migrant workers, was hauled around the West as a boy. His “cowboy dad” beat and sexually abused him and “would sell my mom to other migrant men for five bucks.” His mom, for her part, drank “whole bottles of vodka while she was pregnant, and she was a heavy drinker when she had me,” which is why he has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or F.A.S. Nasdijj himself has been homeless, declared bankruptcy, never held a job more than a year and, to get by, has eaten canned dog food and written pornography. Given the absence of what we think of as the prerequisites for literary writing—a quiet space, supportive friends, the bills mostly paid—it is a kind of miracle that “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams” was written, much less published.

The book’s 20 short, disjointed chapters offer a sometimes riveting, occasionally heartbreaking visit to this man’s life and his wounds. Much of that life has been lived in and around Indian reservations. Most memorable are the passages about his adopted Navajo son, Tommy Nothing Fancy, who, Nasdijj and his wife came to realize, had F.A.S., too. ‘”Had the Indian social worker said the words ‘fetal alcohol syndrome,’ I don’t know if I would have done any of it differently,” Nasdijj writes. “He was perfect to me.”

An underweight infant who cried a lot, Tommy was soon “the terror of schools and teachers and bus drivers and nurses.” In elegiac prose Nasdijj describes taking Tommy on fishing trips across the United States. (“Every man who has a son should give something of himself. This is what the sons are really looking for.”) Tommy suffered from seizures that grew worse and worse; on one such fishing trip, he died of one.

These sections on Tommy—”the one thing I did that was good and didn’t fail”—yield to far more bitter contemplations on writing and race. “I would rather have my Tom than this writing about him, which is just about all I have now,” Nasdijj says. Getting his thoughts on paper has been a lifelong, consuming vexation for the author, who names as his chief obstacle not F.A.S. but the stifling, overpowering presence of white people. He became a writer, he says, to get even with “the many white teachers and white editors out there (everywhere) who insisted it could not be done. Not by the stupid mongrel likes of me.”

Race is a complicated matter here, because Nasdijj looks white to the world. His father was white. As for his mother, well, he chooses his words carefully. “My mother’s people were with the Navajo,” he writes at one point, and at another: “My mother was a Navajo. Or so she claimed.” What is certain is that the author, steeped in Indian culture, uses “Navajo” and “we” interchangeably, and usually refers to Indians as “us.” He grew up on a sort of racial fault line that invited feelings of hurt and rejection, but along the way he made up his mind: he now refers to his whiteness as “the part of me that has no culture, that has no people,” and values only the Navajo.

Why a person for whom “reading and writing are torture” would choose writing as a career remains a bit of a mystery. Nasdijj attributes to his F.A.S. “some rather severe learning disabilities . . . all my craziness, my inability to deal with authority, my perceptual malfunctions (I can read entire books upside down) . . . and my rage.” He has boxes of unpublished novels, and lays their failure to his own inability to comprehend the ways of white society. His breakthrough, though one must read this between the lines, was apparently the publication last year in Esquire of the title chapter about Tommy Nothing Fancy, which was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. And while we cheer the triumph, there’s something extra sad in the knowledge that his success is through writing that depicts his failures. Nowhere is this irony more bitter than when Nasdijj tells us he has been asked to read the Tommy material at literary events, but no longer can: the emotion of it overwhelms him.

This is an outsider’s book; Nasdijj has sympathy for the downtrodden and anger toward the world that marginalizes them. In these pages we meet Native Americans and others who, like the author, don’t fit stereotypes: a Navajo bull rider with AIDS, a pair of young Sioux heroin addicts, male prostitutes in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, a delinquent Indian teenager he mentors, the author’s deaf cousin whose depth, not his debility, is insisted upon. There’s also a white lounge singer with daughters named Molly and Ringwald, with whom the author shares a campground while all of them are effectively homeless. We are introduced to his malcontented high school friends, Bad Nell and Frankie, and meet them when they are grown up. (“She never went to Hollywood. She never challenged the authority of the images. But she did one big . . . thing. She had children and she was kind.”)

The title strikes me as a bit pretentious, as are the handful of places where the author overreaches, apparently in search of profundity. (“And my soul, with its quarantines, its criteria and its prefigurements, a victim of its own picturesque vernacular.”) Information is sometimes repeated carelessly and the story zigzags through time. And while Nasdijj exposes a pain so deep in the Tommy chapters that he breaks your heart, he is stingy with other self-revelation. What was the name of “the woman who was my wife at the time”? Or the woman who is his wife now? Has he any living relatives? William Least Heat-Moon told readers his regular name was Bill Trogdon, and we assume that the author was not called Nasdijj while he was growing up. But all we’re offered on this matter is a line on the dust jacket saying that Nasdijj is “Athabaskan for ‘to become again.'”

Yet this is a fascinating book, unlike anything you are likely to have read. Comparisons will be made to Lars Eighner’s “Travels With Lisbeth” and to “The Broken Cord,” by Michael Dorris, but Nasdijj is sui generis: his book reminds us that brave and engaging writers lurk in the most forgotten corners of society.