Tony Hillerman

I remember back in the 70s if you gave one of Kurt Vonnegut’s books to someone, you generally found, when you visited them later, that they had gone out and gotten all the others.

I gave my brother Rob a copy of a Tony Hillerman book years ago, and sure enough, the next time I went to his house, there were all the Hillermans there on the bookshelf.

If you don’t know the legendary Joe Leaphorn and the young Navaho policeman Jim Chee and all the other wonderful characters in Hillerman’s universe, you’re in for a real treat. The television series was pretty good, but the books are really superb.

Joe Leaphorn, when the series begins, has lost Emma, his beloved wife of many happy years, and his sorrow is lovingly portrayed every time he wakes alone and reaches for her.

In one book, Leaphorn is looking for a lost archaeologist in this canyon and he see a lone goose who has lost its mate; geese mate for life; and he looks at the goose with empathy, a typical Hillerman touch.

Leaphorn attains his legendary status by solving perplexing crimes in an equally perplexing post-modern web of unreality. Murders on reservations are technically under the jurisdiction of the FBI, but in Leaphorn’s universe the FBI is chiefly concerned with their own image, and they send a variety of nincompoops, crooks and capable agents that Leaphorn has to deal with in solving crimes.

It’s a lot like the examining magistrates that Inspector Maigret has to deal with in the Simenon novels. In one book the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent is the baddy and he gets washed away in a rare torrent of rainfall — justice flowing down like a mighty stream as Martin Luther King prophesied.

That’s ironic because stormclouds come over Navaho country almost every day, but they almost always fizzle out, to the disappointment of herders and farmers. I can’t think of another writer who does more with meteorology than Tony Hillerman.

And every novel is instructive about the ways of the Navaho and the Hopi and the Utes and other tribes. Hillerman has been named a friend of the Navaho people, and one has the impression that he has many Navaho friends who help him understand Navaho sensibilities. I think he presents them masterfully.

Take Jim Chee, he’s completely gone on this blond-haired blue-eyed teacher from Wisconsin, but she wants him to go back there. He can’t. His uncle is a singer and has trained him in the Navaho cermonies and sand paintings.

Then he’s gone on Janet Pete — who wouldn’t be — the Navaho public defender who used to work in Washington and maybe was the girlfriend of some politician. She is beautiful and smart and strong and loves Jim Chee, and that’s a hard package to resist, but she sees him as a big shot in the FBI, which he could be if he wanted to, but that would come in conflict with his calling as a healer.

I’m guessing Jim will end up with Officer Bernadette Manuelito. I’ll give six-to-one odds.

Here’s a sample of the kind of situation that you might find in a Hillerman novel: Jim Chee is at the drive-in with his friend Cowboy Dashee, a Commanche, and Janet Pete, whose Navaho language skills aren’t all that good.

They’re watching a movie about the war of annihilation against the Commanches. Cowboy Dashee is watching a movie about the destruction of his people. And the Navahos, Jim Chee included, are laughing their heads off. This is apparently a very popular feature at the drive-in.

Turns out, when they were making the movie, they asked some Navahos to dub the “Indian talk” into the soundtrack, and the Navahos in question decided to put in a bunch of obscenities and rowdy jokes, since nobody knew what they were talking about.

So Cowboy Dashee and Janet Pete are watching this terribly sorrowful movie, and they’re wondering what all the Navahos are laughing about.

Tony Hillerman also wrote a transcendent novel about Vietnam called “Finding Moon.” For everyone who had any involvement in the US war in Vietnam I recommend it above any other book in the universe.

As a member of the Vietnam generation, I felt this book dispelled some very painful problems about this war which Vietnam veterans like John Kerry, along with a ragtag army of hippies like me, were able to bring to an end. Yes it’s true the Viet Cong were associated with atrocities early in the war. They saw how disastrous this was, while we did not.

When I finished this book I felt a sense of resolution that I have never felt before. It reminded me of the Chinese doctor in the Bill Moyers series on Chinese medicine, who waved his hands over his patients without even touching them. At the beginning of the series you’re skeptical, but by the end, when you have learned about the ‘chi’…

When I finished reading “Finding Moon” I resolved dilemmas I had known since I was eleven years old and saw in Life Magazine a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire.

Did anyone else see that picture?