Twenty-five years ago, one of the great American novels of the twentieth century was published to mixed reviews. The book, written by Leslie Marmon Silko, was a 763-page poetic freight-train called Almanac of the Dead. If you, too, are an American and you have been reading all your life, searching for an explanation—or expiation—for the crimes committed against the people indigenous to the Americas, then this book is required reading; it is American History 101, American Literature 101; it is an act of literary atonement. If you are enraged, baffled, and ashamed of the current crimes happening RIGHT NOW in Standing Rock, North Dakota, this is a book that gives voice to the centuries of injustice that have preceded this latest installation of barbarism on behalf of our nation’s authorities.
After the visionary breakthrough of her 1977 novel Ceremony, a masterpiece now widely taught in university literature courses, Silko labored for more than a decade with the support of a Guggenheim fellowship on Almanac of the Dead. When the book was finally published in 1991, some critics cautiously praised the novel’s power and knowledge, while other readers rejected the novel’s one-dimensional treatment of its homosexual characters and its sprawling, muddled plot.
Toni Morrison, Maxine Hongston, and Larry McMurtry all publicly lauded the novel’s achievements (their blurbs appear on my paperback copy of the book), but by and large the critical reception was cool. Perhaps not surprising but nevertheless perplexing, the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for fiction was not awarded to Silko; it was given to John Updike (his second time winning the prize) for the fourth installment of the weary, well-trodden white anxiety novel Rabbit, At Rest. Today, a quarter of a century later, Almanac remains relevant—prophetic, even—and the time has come to ensure it remains accessible for a new generation unfamiliar with Silko’s work.
Set in the cocaine-dusted 1980s, Almanac of the Dead starts with the story of an ex-stripper named Seese who travels to Tucson, Arizona in desperate search of her missing child. We meet dozens of nefarious, compelling characters whose stories immediately intersect in the quick-chop narrative procedure reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film “Traffic.” Many passages in Almanac echo the scorching lyricism of Toni Morrison’s Beloved; both texts are perfectly in tune with the historical realities of their narratives and the consequences, however uncomfortable, for contemporary readers. A friend of mine reported that halfway through the book she had stopped reading it in bed, and, later, stopped herself from reading it after dark because the book gave her nightmares. It is not a horro novel, though the realities it portrays are unequivocal horrifying. The story’s gritty action provides frequent moments of narrative momentum and calls to mind the more entertaining passages of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And with Almanac’s meta-narrative techniques, specifically the chapters featuring the physical “alamanc” kept by Lecha and her twin sister Zeta, Silko pays homage to the fictional scrolls of Melquíades in Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad. At once formally inventive, experimental, morally instructive, Almanac of the Dead is a worthy counterweight to any canonical work of twentieth-centry fiction. It is the American Ulysses, or I should say: Ulysses is the Irish Almanac of the Dead.
I first saw Leslie Marmon Silko’s name while walking through the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., where the Penguin reissue of Ceremony sat stacked in the gift shop, with Sherman Alexie’s words on the cover: “The greatest novel in Native American Literature. It is one of the greatest novels of any time and place. I have read this book so many times, that I probably have it memorized. I teach it, and I learn from it, and I am continually in awe of its power, beauty, rage, vision, and violence.” From Ceremony, which remains in print, I found Almanac, which now nears its unpermissible extinction. For this book to slip out of print—and forever disappear—would seem all too similar to the fate of those people described and killed in its pages.
This coming fall, the anniversary of Almanac’s publication will pass quietly, without the fanfare and reintroduction that classic novels sometimes receive from their publishers. In our flawed national literary canon, it is not too late to ensure that Almanac doesn’t quietly disappear from our artistic consciousness. Over the next few months, I will continue to tweet at @PenguinClassics if only to reach the person manning the social media helm, to remind them that they have a bloody, beautiful masterpiece collecting dust in their digital backlist. We owe it to the readers of tomorrow, to ensure that the masterpieces of yesterday don’t vanish before our very eyes.