I flicked my finger across the cover, the lacquer sheen as slick as the day that the University of Arizona Press birthed it into the world. It is nothing like my own copy, whose matte is more resistant to my touch, whose finish is subdued even in brilliant fluorescence. I opened the book, and then I cried.
But that’s the end of the story.
It began when one of my sisters, Kim Mann, gave me a book. It was a copy of Louis Owens’s 1999 novel Dark River . Just as Kim has a knack for picking the exact book that I need to read, I have a knack for letting her recommendations ripen for years on the bookshelf before finally reading them. I can’t remember which year it was, but I was still at the University of Minnesota and Kim was still ensnared in her own Ph.D. program.
Dark River waited for me. Every so often, I would pull it out of the shelf and examine the enigmatic, androgynous figure on its cover with some interest. But I’m easily distracted, and I would invariably return it to the shelf. I knew I’d read it eventually, but it wasn’t time quite yet.
I was unsettled. I couldn’t help but think about Dark River every day, his last novel, and the wound that his death must have carved into this intimate department. Was it really fair for me to come in over a decade later, completely ignorant, and stir up all these feelings again? And could I really entitle myself to go and look at Louis Owens’s papers, knowing that he may never have intended for them to end up where they did? I’m from Minnesota, for god’s sake! I don’t know any better!
I tried to talk through my concerns with whichever unfortunate person happened to be in my presence. I carried Dark River around with me. After all, I was supposed to be writing a paper on it! Papers are serious business! The more I stared at the cover, the more its allure piqued my curiosity. Despite my misgivings, I could not help it. I was obsessed. I read the book.
What I found was an intensely woven narrative, filled with life, death, and tricky symbols that undoubtedly make English majors feel incredibly clever when they notice them. There is a very sharp humor there, that does not so much invite you to laugh as grimace as it lances the sore of an ugly truth and allows the pus to ooze out. Owens draws your attention to the very construction of narrative itself, with characters troubling the boundaries of the meta and synthetic from the natural and diegetic.
So I wrote about it. I wrote about the story of the “surviving twin,” and argued that Dark River is really about life more than it is about death. And while I still mostly agree with what I claimed, it does not really make me feel any better. Something about that writing still felt hollow. Perhaps it was simply that I had never found myself facing an academic project that felt so real, and so menacing. Perhaps it was that Dark River draws my attention to the synthetics of academic writing for its artificial dryness. Or maybe the paper just needs to be revised.
But, in any case, I never could bring myself to request boxes of his papers to go through. I invented a barrier for myself: writing the email to the special collections themselves. How does one start such an e-mail? “Dear Special Collections”? “Dear Shields Library”? “To whichever kindly bureaucrat it may concern”? But the real reason that I didn’t send the e-mail is because I was afraid of what I might find, that I might see something that it is not really for me to see. I felt like Louis Owens would be sitting in the room with me, irritated by my presence, and I couldn’t bring myself to go there. I rationalized that I could read Dark River perfectly well without needing to read his papers, so I didn’t. And that was when I thought I was done meeting Louis Owens.
And so, with the vague threat that I might somehow get into a negligible amount of trouble for fondling some books that aren’t mine, I was content to spend most of my time staring at whomever was making a salient point, or gazing into the convoluted inner sanctum of some middle chapter in a book that I didn’t really understand and barely even read, or marveling at Dian Million’s face, projected to several times its typical size through the sorcery of Skype and the tangles of cords that erupt from the podium in the corner of the room.
But even with these wonders, I could not help but look at the damn books. For most of winter quarter, I was fixated on the adjacent copies of Arctic Voices, because of their visual positioning just a few feet above SimHayKin Jack’s head. With all due respect to the editors, I could not imagine why a library without patrons might need a second copy of Arctic Voices.
The process repeated itself. I’d go to a seminar, sit on the far side of the table, amble through some verbal entanglements of my own creation, and look at those copies of Arctic Voices. That was, until spring quarter, when I finally noticed Craig Womack’s Drowning in Fire, hidden near floor level on the shelf nearest to the door. I noticed it because I was already reading my own copy of Drowning in Fire, because Mark Rifkin convinced me that I wanted to read it. Before, it had always blended into the background of books-I-shouldn’t-want-to-read-since-I’m-not-supposed-to-touch-them. But I knew its binding now, and it blazed into my vision, a shimmering sigil of recognition. I could look at it because I already had it, and so I could acknowledge its presence and return to whatever dire tome we were reading instead with no sense of longing.
I realized, eventually, that I wasn’t done writing about Dark River. During Professor Steven Crum’s ethnohistory seminar, it struck me that Dark River is a historical document in its own right. It may be fictional, but it contains innumerable potent critiques of history, and fits, with a certain self-awareness, into a genealogy of Native American fiction that focuses on Native veterans returned from overseas wars.
So I wrote about Dark River again; this time, more frantically, and less coherently. I wrote about whatever my caffeine-stricken consciousness desperately suggested, and I filled the pages. With some revulsion at what I had done, I printed it out and stapled it together. I staggered my way through my presentation, truncating my arguments with nervous laughter, and then it was finally over. No one could force me to write another damn word. I was drawn to Netflix, drowning in Firefly, dreaming into tomorrow the delusions of literary grandeur on my horizon.
But it wasn’t quite right. I saw so many posts on Facebook eulogizing the year in graduate school madness and felt like I should say something for myself. But it didn’t really feel like I had earned any catharsis to speak of. After complaining about my exhaustion for months, I had nothing to say for myself having finished the year.
Bayu Kristianto was there as well, and we worked through the folders, sorting files that hacked out their last dusty gasps before being laid to rest in the recycling bin. After hours of sifting and shredding, I found myself alone in the conference room, staring at the bookshelf in front of me. Given a few minutes as a break, I walked over to the shelf and looked at it.
On the very bottom shelf, I saw a stack of programs from Louis Owens’s memorial service at U.C. Davis. I found that odd, that they might be there, and that they had been there since before the first time that I had ever walked into the conference room. I looked for Dark River, and found his novel Nightland instead. No one was around to tell me what to do, and quite frankly by this point I wouldn’t have listened anyway. I carefully marked the book’s place, pulled it off the shelf, and opened it up to see what year it was published.
To my surprise, Owens had signed it. I stared at the book for a few moments, before quickly putting it back. I definitely was not going to be the first-year graduate student that accidentally damaged the department’s signed copy of Nightland. I looked at those shelves, seeing Grass Dancer, seeing novel after novel, and my eyes returned once again to Drowning in Fire.
I sat down in the nearest chair and pulled that book, too, from its place. The light slicked off its unctuous surface like oil in the rain. And then I opened it, and sat in stunned silence. There was the briefest of notes, from Craig Womack to Louis Owens, and I thought about the book’s publication in 2001, and Owens’s death in 2002, and how perfect the binding was, and how starched stiff the pages were, and how I was seeing something never meant for me, and I stared at the page, and my eyes welled up, and I cried silently, in the Native American Studies conference room, alone with Louis Owens’s unread copy of Drowning in Fire.
And then I put the book back in its place on the shelf, and I saw how everything had converged, just for a moment, and I realized that I had spent a year staring at a shelf full of Louis Owens’s books, a silent public archive that was always staring back at me. I guess I cried because of the thought that Louis Owens didn’t read Drowning in Fire, although I hope that he did, but maybe it was because I hadn’t cried since I had left Minnesota nine months ago, and now that the year was over, it was finally time to set myself free—if only for a few moments.
This is the story of how I met Louis Owens. And most of it is true.