#57 – House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969): When the Moon is in the Seventh House, Sometimes Peace Will Guide the Planets, but Sometimes You Just Need to Tone Down the Drug Use

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

I see a lot of concerts. A lot a lot. Always have. I’ve seen some all time greats like Prince, The Rolling Stones, U2, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, David Bowie, Van Halen, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, Journey (with Steve Perry), Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters and Neil Young. I’ve seen the current crop of great live acts like Green Day, Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, Kanye West, Kings of the Stone Age, The White Stripes, Bruno Mars, Adele, The National, Tame Impala, Florence and the Machine, My Morning Jacket, and the Black Keys. And because of my 12-year-old daughter Lily (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), I’ve seen Taylor Swift (twice), Katy Perry (twice), Pink, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus (the slutty one, not the Hannah Montana one), Selena Gomez and soon Arianna Grande. I’ve seen some mediocre bands too, like the one-hit wonders who end up playing their one hit more than one time. In the end, I have loved every one of them.

My favorite concert? Hard to say. But my favorite concert moment? No question. In the fall of 1997, Jane’s Addiction, who had been broken up since 1991, reunited for the Relapse Tour with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing bass. The tour was overwhelmingly successful selling out shows from coast to coast, but the band took it up a notch when they came to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco and hosted the neo-pagan extravaganza, the ENIT Festival. With drum-and-bass artist Goldie and DJ collective Funky Tekno Tribe opening up, and Jane’s scheduled to go on at 1 a.m., the show was more rave than concert. Perry Farrell, Jane’s lead singer, called the event “a lavish celebration of the senses.” So given that backdrop, the audience was not surprisingly surprised when, late in the evening (early in the morning?), on the stage appeared, not Jane’s Addiction, but Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Nation (1964), neither a Pulitzer Prize winner, was a pivotal countercultural figure in the 1960s. But really he’s famous for taking a lot of drugs. A lot a lot. In his most well-known act, Kesey, Neal Cassady, and others in a group of friends they called the Merry Pranksters took a cross-country trip in a psychedelic painted school bus nicknamed “Further.” This trip, chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was the group’s attempt to create art out of everyday life, and to experience roadway America while high on LSD. A lot a lot of LSD.

Given that the Merry Pranksters were a generation removed from their heyday, their inclusion at the ENIT Festival seemed ill conceived. And when Kesey and the Pranksters – all dressed in black plastic trash bags — wandered onstage after Goldie and performed an extemporaneous spoken word exposition about JFK’s assassination (it happened to be the anniversary of his death) accompanied by video footage of the tragedy, it was no celebration of the senses. Given the festival atmosphere that preceded this performance, the crowd’s reaction, and my own, was no bueno. It was not making me happy. At all.

But that’s when the magic happened. It turns out that Kesey believed that the Kennedy assassination marked the point there the world turned from black and white to Technicolor. I didn’t know that. All I knew was that one by one the members of the Merry Pranksters started to remove their trash bags revealing fluorescent clown costumes underneath, and when they did, they also transitioned into singing “Let the Sun Shine In” from Hair. The crowd was peaking, singing along with the Pranksters, when at exactly the right moment, the lights dropped, Dave Navarro’s mellow guitar intro to “Ocean Size” filled the arena, and the crowd took a collective breath waiting for Perry Farrell to scream “Three, Four!” before all hell broke loose. I just got chills. And to this day, I believe that moment would have been wonderful on its own, but the inclusion of the Merry Pranksters beforehand made it better.

And lucky for me, and now you, the whole thing was captured on film for a movie called Three Days so that I can relive the moment at my whim. The clip below starts first with a crowd shot to set the stage (44:38), cuts to some dude explaining the Prankster’s bus outside Bill Graham (45:00), moves to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on stage in their trash bags (45:30) and then culminates with Perry, wearing a Mardi Gras-inspired mask, jumping down on to the stage while Dave Navarro (in a black mini-skirt, hose, feather boa and silver cape) and Flea hit the first power chord of Ocean Size. Roughly 2 ½ minutes of bliss to me that I recognize will mean very little to most everyone else.

But my focus here isn’t on Jane’s (chills again) but instead on The Merry Pranksters because they remind me a lot of House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969). I’ll explain in a moment.

House Made of Dawn tells the story of Abel in four distinct parts. In Part I, we meet Abel, a Native American who returns to his reservation in New Mexico after fighting in World War II. Emotionally, he’s a wreck, and when he arrives he’s so drunk he doesn’t recognize his grandfather Francisco, a man who not only taught him Native American traditions, but also raised Abel after the death of his mother. Although he tries, he never quite fits in and things invariably go off the rails ending with Abel deciding some guy is a witch so he stabs him to death outside a bar. As with many murderers, Abel is sent to jail.

Parts II and III take place in Los Angeles 6 ½ years later, but tell the story from different points of view. In Part II, Abel has been released from prison and has begun hanging out with a local group of Native Americans led by Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah. They aren’t good people. He’s also made a real friend named Ben and starts dating a social worker named Milly, but neither are enough to keep him out of trouble. Abel ends up drunk on the beach with his hands, head, and upper body beaten and broken, but eventually pulls himself together enough to walk to the apartment he shares with Ben.

In Part III, Ben puts Abel on a train back to the reservation and describes what has happened to Abel in Los Angeles. After being ridiculed by Reverend Tosamah during a poker game, Abel is too drunk to fight back, remains drunk for the next two days and, not surprisingly, misses work. When he returns to his job, the boss, not surprisingly, gives him shit and Abel quits. A downward spiral begins (or, depending on your definition of “downward spiral,” continues) and Abel continues to get drunk every day, borrow money from Ben and Milly, and laze around the apartment until Ben finally throws him out of the apartment. Abel then picks a fight with a corrupt cop that leads to him almost being beaten to death.

In the last part, Momaday brings the story full circle as Abel returns to the reservation to take care of his grandfather, who is dying. His grandfather retells him the stories from his youth and stresses the importance of staying connected to his people’s traditions. In the end, Abel participates in a traditional ritual and it feels as if he may be coming back to his people and his place in the world.

So what is the connection between the Merry Pranksters and House Made of Dawn other than they were both created in the 60s and involved a lot of drugs? In both cases the actual work is less important than what the work represented. If I painted a bus today and drove it across the US while simultaneously taking a lot of drugs, people would think it was silly. Maybe fun, but silly. But when the Merry Pranksters did this in 1964, it truly was revolutionary. It was the link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. The act itself doesn’t stand the test of time, but what it represented does.

Just as I feel that Ken Kesey and Merry Pranksters have more social importance than artistic, Momaday’s book has more social and political importance than literary. Specifically, Momaday’s novel is important less because it breaks new ground thematically (it doesn’t, really) and more because of its status as the first novel by a Native American author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize (and because it is seen as paving the way for the Native American literary boom that would follow) and because of its structural/formal experimentation. And while both are undoubtedly significant, with the benefit of hindsight, the novel itself isn’t as strong as some of the other Pulitzer winners.

Momoday’s writing can be undeniably beautiful at times, but he took a fairly simple story and made it equally undeniably confusing by using a non-linear and stream of consciousness method of story-telling and then on top of that shifting perspectives of the characters without warning. Doing so may be interesting or even, dare we say, revolutionary for the time, but it also demands a lot from the reader. It is a hard book that requires close reading. Or a lot of LSD. A lot a lot.

But, to be clear, “hard books” are not “bad books” and I enjoyed this one. The literary tricks, however, seemed more contrived than necessary and ultimately subtracted from the story itself. The characters get lost in the process. I never gained any real perspective into Abel (or any of the other characters for that matter), which then, unfortunately, makes Abel’s journey–from alienated returning vet to ex-con in the big city and back to the reservation, where he finds a sort of healing and begins to return to his people and their way of life—seem like one seen from a distance, not one I actually cared about.

House Made of Dawn, while admittedly trailblazing in some respects, feels like a premature Pultizer. The Prize committee made this award on what the novel represented rather than the novel itself. Just as I applaud Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters for what they did but it doesn’t mean I thought it was good (other than opening up for Jane’s Addiction in fluorescent clown outfits), I similarly I applaud Momaday for giving us a glimpse into his world even though I though it could have been a lot better.  A lot a lot.

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