Lighting Out for the Territory
THE SHADOW CATCHER
By Marianne Wiggins
Simon & Schuster. 323 pp. $25
There are passages in Marianne Wiggins's eighth novel so piercingly beautiful that I put the book down, shook my head and simply said, "Wow." She's reproduced a number of photographs in her text -- appropriately, since her subject is a photographer -- but these physical images pale in comparison to the pictures she creates with words. Buoyed by Wiggins's gorgeous prose, we soar in the very first scene, as she imagines flying over California, "on the edge, at night, after the coyotes end their braying, there's an hour after midnight when a silence drops into these canyons which persists 'til the first birdsong of morning." Before plunging into the particulars of her story, we already know that this restless, challenging author is once again asking us to contemplate the deeper meaning of our national character and destiny, the ways the American landscape has shaped us and we have shaped it.
In Evidence of Things Unseen, her previous explosion of creative energy, Wiggins took as her touchstone Moby-Dick, the Ur-text of every metaphysically inclined novelist. Here the reference point is Huckleberry Finn. She ponders the moral responsibility of those who, like Huck, "light out for the territory" and of those who claim to truthfully depict it.
At the center of The Shadow Catcher is the real-life photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). Wiggins combines Curtis's experiences with the adventures of a woman she has created named Marianne Wiggins. This Marianne has written a novel about Curtis, and there are some things that trouble her about his work. His early 20th-century photographs of American Indians fixed their image as a noble, doomed race. "But they're lies," Marianne says. "They're propaganda." Curtis altered his photos to eliminate such traces of modern life as cars and clocks; his subjects were no longer roaming the plains, but "confined in high-security encampments . . . deprived of their livelihoods, forced into the manufacture of 'Indian-ized' tourist junk."
Absorbed in his mythmaking, the photographer abandoned his family for years at a time; his wife, Clara, finally divorced him in 1919. So why, Marianne wonders, would their four children inscribe his gravestone with the words "Beloved Father" and choose to be buried around him? No sooner has she posed these questions than Marianne is confronted with a disturbing puzzle concerning her own father. He's been dead for more than 30 years, but she gets a call saying that a man with his driver's license and Social Security number is in the cardiac ICU of a Las Vegas hospital.
At this point, Marianne drops out of the narrative for 100 pages while we follow the story of Clara Phillips, a young woman who travels from civilized St. Paul to remote Washington Territory, where she falls in love with Edward Curtis. It's clear that this strange man will bring her little besides misery, but he convinces her to stay with him -- and then, just as suddenly, we return to Marianne, now en route to a Las Vegas hospital with questions about her father and Edward Curtis.
I don't know how closely Marianne's experiences approximate those of the author, who thanks her sister in the acknowledgments "for the license to decorate our shared history." What matters is that she is a completely credible fictional creation, whose quest to find out how a dying man came to assume her father's identity unexpectedly leads her to the discovery of a long-hidden aspect of Curtis's life. Getting her there requires some very big coincidences, most involving Lester Owns His Shadow, a Navajo whom Marianne meets in Las Vegas. Indians called Curtis "the Shadow Catcher," and Wiggins's use of Lester's name (and remarks) to make the point that the photographer's subjects "had their shadows stolen" is among several instances of her tendency to overdo the metaphors.
This is merely the fault of an author with a lot to say who could sometimes be more disciplined but could hardly be more stimulating. Even Marianne's meandering drive to Vegas, which initially seems like an irritating digression, eventually takes us back to the novel's main themes. Her story and Curtis's contain a wealth of common images that accumulate to give the closing pages a powerful emotional charge. It's no accident that those images -- flying, chasing shadows, hearing a train whistle -- all suggest movement, for the author's central preoccupation is the human journey through territory and time. Curtis's and Marianne's fathers both took their most important journeys alone. "It's impossible to know for sure if they were running from or running to," muses the narrator. "Huck never says where or what he's bound for, he just needs to go. Make tracks. Get outta Dodge. Hit the highway. Avoid, elude, escape Aunt Sally."
Riffing on Huck's famous final declaration, Wiggins offers a distinctively feminine perspective, enumerating civilization's constraints: "We all have our own Aunt Sally. . . . Call her parenthood. Domestic mess. Daily reminder of debt and obligation." Clara was that reminder for her husband, who left her behind just as Marianne's father left his young wife with a photo that proclaimed, "This is us when we were happy."
In The Shadow Catcher, as too often in the real world, women get stuck with kids and debts and painful memories of vanished happiness when their men light out for the territory. But Wiggins is too intelligent and subtle to leave it at that. Her most magnificent prose is lavished on bravura evocations of wide-open American spaces that acknowledge their complex appeal to men and women alike. "The sound my nation makes" -- another of the resonant phrases that echo through the text -- could be a train whistle tempting us to make tracks, if this were a Hollywood movie. In the final moments of Wiggins's stirring novel, it is instead a sound of connection and continuity: "the stubborn, uninterrupted susurration of lives stirring from the shadows toward sustaining light." ·
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."