American Indians were the first people to cultivate corn, and this novel, The Crown of Columbus, by two part-Indian writers, pays tribute to that ancestral tradition: It’s cultivated corn. Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, who are married, have each published distinguished books with Indian subjects, including Tracks (Erdrich) and The Broken Cord (Dorris). But this highly packaged and promoted mutual effort is laid low by an urge to uplift. They have earnestly tried to establish a comic tone to go with their melodramatic, tongue-in-the-vicinity-of-cheek plot. But the comic intention, laden with edifying literary allusions, cloying characters, and conventional cutting-edge sentiments, is off balance. It lurches from ponderous caricature to lame sarcasm and ends up in a morass of suffocating wholesomeness.
The novel’s heroine and part-time narrator, Vivian Twostar, a Dartmouth anthropology professor, is a volatile mixture of Navajo, Coeur d’Alene, and Irish blood who ”didn’t survive for forty years as an Indian woman without a sixth sense for bullshit.” In which case you wonder how she got herself into this book. She’s brash, blunt, irreverent, independent, angry, and determined — a pillar of salty feminist virtue. Her partner in stereotype, a blue-blooded WASP colleague named Roger Williams, is orderly, compulsive, stiff, priggish, and stunningly handsome. While in competitive pursuit of scholarly material on Columbus, they fall into a throbbing but combative affair that soon produces a bawling, scene-stealing infant named Violet.
The authors do their cumbersome best to have some fun with the contrast between free-spirited, intuitively wise Vivian and pompous, smugly deluded Roger, but there’s a problem with making an ass of Roger. He’s supposed to be a ”well-known narrative poet, critics’ darling, Byronic media star,” but he sounds more like a turgid Episcopalian bishop. Readers who persist in believing that this cardboard bard can actually write poetry, even after his account of the throes of composition (”I tried to render this presage into words, groped for an adequate juxtaposition of verb and noun”), are condemned to read, toward the end of the book, his entire Columbus poem, 16 cruel and unusual pages.
The plot spirits Vivian and her entourage — Roger, baby, and Nash, her sullen and monosyllabic teenage son by a long-gone Dakota — to the Bahamas, where a villain named Cobb awaits them. Cobb has inherited Columbus’ original diary from his patrician New England family, and Vivian has the two missing pages, which she found in the Dartmouth library and which allude to a perhaps priceless crown given to a native prince. Cobb will stop at nothing to get them. He lacks a mustache to twirl, but otherwise he plays his dastardly, curses-foiled-again role to the hackneyed hilt. The happily-ever-after includes the conversion of both Roger and Nash to born-again niceness.
The book has some patches of shrewd prose and even a couple of good jokes. But to see what’s missing, you only have to read another story, recently published, of quarrelsome academic sleuths who unlock a mystery of the past and end up in bed. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is a subtle distillation of irony, sympathy, and historical imagination; The Crown of Columbus is a pureé of pastiche and cliché — well-meant mush. D