Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down was another book that was required for a class, and while this would usually mean that I abhored the book based on principle alone, I have to admit – this one actually ended up surprising me for the better! With the semester over, it’s a lot easier to look back and realize that maybe, just maybe, the books weren’t so bad after all. And this one, more than any of the others, was a much different kind of reading experience!
Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is set in the western town of Yellow Back Radio, where the kids run anarchy and the adults hide in fear. The main character, Loop Garoo, is a voodoo cowboy who is from the first page made to be a representation of Satan. He spends most of the book taking revenge on Drag Gibson, the white landowner who runs most of Yellow Back and is obsessed with material goods (such as his green horse), sleeping with women, and killing any and everyone he chooses. Loop Garoo soon takes to the mountains and begins to cast a whole spell of trouble on the town of Yellow Back through his voodoo skills and his desire to see Drag suffer (early on in the book, Drag kills the entire circus that Loop was travelling with). What is so amazing about this book, however, is just how much Reed chooses to re-write the Western genre, in addition to a number of American myths. Lewis and Clark show up as violent rapists, Jefferson appears as a raging drunk, and Loop frequently talks about his father (supposedly representing God) as a drunk, violent, philandering man not all that different than Drag Gibson. What Reed does is subtle – if you’re not keeping track of the characters, you may miss some of the lovely subtle things he does with his reworkings – but it’s powerful none the less. I’ve read a number of other Reed books, and they all seem to be shouting the same message from the rooftops – the Western tradition (think dead old white men full of abstract wisdom) is not the only tradition, and the only way of thinking shouldn’t be the Western way of thinking, or everyone is in for a whole world of trouble. The characters speak of the ‘glory of the West’ with sarcasm, and even as he works within one of the most famous and completely American genres he manages to turn everything into a subtle critique of the West’s (especially America’s) tendency to think of and judge everything on our terms and by our standards.
This book is weird. I should probably go ahead and alert the general reading public to that fact. But that weirdness doesn’t keep it from being interesting, and in fact makes the book all that more fun to dig through. It’s probably not for everyone, but I’ve got a couple of history-buff friends who love to read Reed’s work to see if they can place all the historical figures and events that somehow end up wildly different from the reality of the situation. Reed’s two other most famous books, Flight to Canada and Mumbo Jumbo are much harder to read and, in my opinion, not quite as fun, but if you’re more academically minded looking for something to really sink your teeth into, perhaps consider giving Reed a try! If you tend to swing the other way, and would rather read something a bit more politically proactive, you may want to try out Amiri Baraka, another poet contemporary with Reed who participated strongly in the Black Arts movement and wrote some rather violent political poetry. Either way, I would definitely suggest you check out some of Reed’s work, if for no other reason than to introduce yourself to something a bit different! Coming up in the next post…my Top Ten Books of 2009! Happy Reading!