A Review of This Town Sleeps by Dennis Staples
This Town Sleeps
by Dennis Staples
Counterpoint Press, 2020
$26.00 (hard back)
Dennis Staples’ debut novel, This Town Sleeps, weaves together the lives and secrets of several Ojibwe families on a reservation called Languille Lake. The novel boasts a large cast of characters, all connected in some way to Marion Lafournier, a gay Ojibwe man with an acerbic wit, a closeted white boyfriend and a dog named Basil.
Another ghost-like dog also is at the center of the novel’s plot, as is the past death of a young Ojibwe basketball star, Kayden Kelliher. The ghost dog lives under the school’s merry-go-round and comes into the story to propel the action and Marion’s character toward understanding the links between the past and the present.
The novel interweaves the far past, near past and present expertly. Its braiding of the three provides many of the novel’s tensions and points of intrigue. How is the death of a character, generations’ back, factoring into the present-day struggles of Marion, Girly, Hazel and all the other characters? How are Basil the dog and his former owners connected through time and place to the past and to the ghost dog and to characters who’ve passed on, as well? These questions drive the narrative momentum of the novel, the threads braided tightly and clearly. All the strands connect one person or conflict to the next; there are no leftover bits or flyaway strands.
Chapters Four and Eight both stand out, in particular, for their forms and ingenuity. In Chapter Four, “Ogichidaag (Warriors),” readers learn about the place’s history from the points of view of the nearer past. Marion and Kayden Kelliher’s childhood stories show in part, how the boys end up where they are — one narrating the overall story and one now removed from it through a violent act. The boys, as children, in this chapter, play ball together. One is more prone to fighting than the other. One has a more stable home life, and the other, more volatility.
In less deft hands, their early childhood years perhaps would serve as a stand in for the trajectory of their larger lives. But Staples uses these specifics, these childhood details, instead to develop the boys as full, rich characters, as people with complex backstories and lives. Marion may be considered the smart one, yes, but we also see Kayden’s intellect. Kayden may have been a basketball star, but we also see his inventive childhood brain, hard at work early on solving grownup problems.
How the boys are rendered as parts of each other, as shared parts, versus being pitted off one another in a competitive way is a main part of the novel’s strength. Their pasts and presents are linked inextricably. There is more comparison present in the story than there is contrast. This linking, the tying tight of how these two are braided together, shows insider knowledge of how small towns and reservations are. From the outside, there may be more perceived contrast. But everyone is in everyone else’s lives. Everyone’s stories overlap to make more stories. This chapter and the novel as a whole provide the very best sort of example of this overlap, through the capturing of day-to-day life, which is not often depicted in small town or reservation stories told from the outside.
In Chapter Eight, “The Lost Forty,” the narrative carries the full weight of the characters’ history while still moving the present tension forward. This chapter also does stand out work to develop the novel’s women, especially Hazel and Eunice. We learn more about the ancestor Bullhead and a jawbone, which is both talisman and actual bone. This section of the novel sets up how the far past still is intersecting with and impacting Marion’s present-day life. It also deals with both romantic and familial love and with being cursed or feeling cursed. Though this is territory trod before, of course, in Native and non-Native novels alike, the subtlety of the stories and the prose itself elevate what might otherwise become too familiar. Really, this section holds the weight of the past and balances it with present tension expertly.
Both the violence and magic of the past are lived and carried through the streets of Geshig in This Town Sleeps. The novel crafts suspense as well as it does the otherworldly. It’s rare for a young writer to be so adept so early on in a career at both magic and suspense. Staples also is a very, very funny writer. The book’s humor balances the novel’s tensions well and also works to craft deep, memorable characters.
A whole host of books published in March and April 2020 have been given short shrift, due to the coronavirus pandemic, due to the world focusing its attention elsewhere. This Town Sleeps is a book that deserves readers’ attention, that will provide both a good read at the level of plot and some hope for the future, too, in its characters’ lives. This novel’s publication marks the start of what will surely be a long and accomplished career for Staples.
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