Book Reviews, Novels

William Eastlake’s the Checkerboard Trilogy, or, Lyric of the Circle Heart (1956 – 1963)

Go in Beauty (1956)

Eastlake_GIB_cov.pngWrite what you know. Golden advice, and Eastlake devotes his first novel to these words, writing deeply of the white-red divide that’d banished the Navajo culture to the ‘Checkerboard’ region, as well as the role of the writer, of art, the relationship shared with the outside world, and, surprisingly, the land itself, devoid of culture except as a current morphological and ecological influence. Unfortunately with Go in Beauty, Eastlake gave too much focus to world of the artist, which doesn’t always mix well in the scheme of things. It helps stress the cultural dead-end meetings, but something indeterminable about this hurts the novel’s impact, especially comparatively with the thematically-similar trilogy closer.

Go in Beauty is the first story of the Bowman family, introducing brothers Alexander and George (Santi): close, white brothers who grew up among the Navajo, understanding them and their fragmented culture more than the white culture that tries so hard to impose itself on this decaying checkered parcel. Immediately, with Eastlake’s surreal flair and a Navajo prophecy, their relationship is torn apart by prophecy, by love — stolen — and Alexander’s sudden successful career as literary author all too remindful of Hemingway. He writes what he knows, as well: The trials of the Navajo, of his own family, his rifting sibling relationship: His work is monumental, expounding the truth of the Checkerboard to the world outside. It brings attention for the first time to the real cowboys-and-Indians relationship to the imposing big-city America, shedding the John Ford mythologies that a romantic nation lives on.

William Eastlake came nearest to success with a 1969 adaptation of his novel, Castle Keep (1965)

Three successful books, three successful movies, his monumental truths bring gawkers and oil-hungry manipulators to Navajo country. (Of course.) Central to events, the brothers fight their personal demons, to get past the lovelorn burglary and reunite, and around this Alexander’s literary career begins to falter, unable to write of what he knows unless he goes where he can’t (home); across the Checkerboard country, uranium-seeking corporations continue their history of swindling, a native World War vet returns traumatized and broken because, as a Navajo, he couldn’t figure out the meaning of surrender.

The cast of Navajo characters is vast and eccentric, all unique and genuinely portrayed by Eastlake (my favorite probably being the outcasted intellectual, a quirky character torn between cultures and not entirely welcomed by either), but this cast is never the main focus; it’s always the white Bowmans’ observance of both sides and their cultural clashings. (Perhaps this is more accurate, more right — perhaps Eastlake didn’t have the right to do otherwise.)

This review may come off as a little nebulous when it comes to plot, but that’s the way Eastlake tends to write. The brothers’ tragedy is a backdrop for separated experiences and stories, the culture and the landscape, all of them worth checking out on the way to the novel’s violent and heart-wrenching (but prophesied, inevitable, expected) denouement.


The Bronc People (1958)

Eastlake_TBP_cov.pngA loose sequel to Go in Beauty, Eastlake’s second novel has been the most successful and accessible of the Checkerboard trilogy. Tied to its predecessor only by Big Santi (George) Bowman, My Prayer and occasional character references, it can (and should, for those uninterested in the prequel’s artistic themes) be read on its own terms as a coming-of-age western epic, mixing the best of Ken Kesey with Cormac McCarthy’s rare comedy among a dusty, lonely landscape, seemingly without law or outside influence.

Across the Checkerboard, stories always start with a misunderstanding: The novel opens with a bloody shootout, neither participant, the Gran Negrito (’…an awfully odd color…for a white man’) and Big Sant, sure of why they’re defending themselves at the Circle Heart. Water? cattle? propert? All possibilities. Watching from nearby, two curious Navajos watch these two ‘white’ outsiders act out their silly white ways, not really caring one way or the other. The Gran Negrito falls in a confused blaze to protect his son and protect his books. Big Sant rushes in to save the man despite the misunderstanding just as a child rushes out the backdoor. This is how the Circle Heart land comes to the Bowman line, and how Alastair Benjamin, the escaping child, joins the Bowmans.

The story itself is more in-focus this time around, and it follows the maturation of brothers Little Sant and Alastair Benjamin, their growings-up and growings-apart, each seeking to escape the Checkerboard region. Li’l’ Sant dreams of nothing but being a bronc man, riding rodeos for the pleasure of anonymous crowds; Alastair nothing but an education, he reads and reads the burned out stories left behind by the Gran Negrito, wanting to get away from the Circle Heart’s intellectual decrepitude, always quick to show off his advanced vocabulary (often incorrectly).

William Eastlake (R) standing with his friend, noted environmentalist Edward Abbey (L). Eastlake’s writing took a number of cues from the data-driven environmental writings of the ’60s.

Again, the plot benefits a series of vignettes set over a rough eight years: The boys exploring the landscape, spending more and more time away from the Circle Heart, getting involved with Navajo tomfoolery or corporate / government misadventures. A favorite moment, Eastlake takes a dip into Aldo Leopold territory, attacking in one instance the government’s insistence on carnivore extirpation; their orders:

’Go out and kill all the coyotes because we have already killed almost all the big cats that prey on them and after you have killed all the coyotes then kill all the rabbits because when the coyotes are gone the rabbits will, of course, explode, and after the rabbits are gone whatever they feed on will be all over the place and then you exterminate that and then the next and the next until we are the only animal alive!’

Again, the insistence of the Christian world to convert the first nations and take nothing in return but their victims’ rights to culture. A manic-depressive missionary devotes his life to the conversion of the locals, with nothing to show for his lifelong attempt at expounding ‘progress’ except for his garish European home and a single convert — whose death causes much confusion: Christian or Navajo? How is this handled? and what does the missionary do now? kill himself? leave, hands empty? burn? or — ‘I must get downriver before they convert me’ — assimilate?

After the Checkerboard Trilogy, Eastlake wrote two absurdist war novels. The Bamboo Bed is likened to a Catch-22 for the Vietnam War (and it’s just as good!).

Indian Fighter, Blue-Eyed Billy Peersall, 100-something years old, settled in the region long before anyone remembers, after the wars on the natives were halted — not liking the Indians but neither appreciating the whites’ coping — he cares for nothing and tolerates everything, telling amnesiac stories of a bogus wild west or hushing for returned loneliness. The elder Navajo My Prayer shares his views during the climactic ‘sweetie sweetie,’ reflecting in one of the most poignant commentaries on the white-red cultural divide:

As soon as we spoke, the day we spoke, that was the beginning of the end. That was the day the white man began to love the Indian to death. A white man can never commit a crime and forget it. When we stole this land, when the Navajo stole this land from the Gallina people, the Navajo forgot it. Except for some rather pleasant memories of the war, the Navajo forgot it. When the white man stole this land from the Navajo Nation he has got to compound the crime in order to forget it. He’s got to love us to death. Love is their way of not giving back something they have stolen….I wonder if the white man will ever learn that [to be tolerated]…is all any defeated people ever want….To be allowed to be different. Love is their way of intolerance. Love is their gentle way of grabbing you firmly by the ziz and twisting until an Indian hollers Uncle Sam. The whites never did anything wrong that wasn’t made up for by this love. Their love is like a gentle ziz-twisting thing. Their love.


 Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-six Horses (1963)

Eastlake_POAAW26H_cov.pngOf the Checkerboard trilogy, Portrait… is easily the hardest to write about, to even talk or think about. It brings no sense of closure to this loosest of trilogies, making the comparisons to Faulkner’s mythic Yoknapatawpha that much stronger: A connection of character and culture, desert and history — but not so much in the story department.

Portrait… entails many conflicting stories and themes:

  • Medicine man Tomas Tomas heads to the mountains to die because it’s going to be cold soon
  • Peter Winger tries his hand at smuggling illegal immigrants over the Mexican border with sociopathic intent, only to be felled by a wandering heifer
  • Famed poet Phillip Reck is accidentally talked out of suicide
  • The jazz Prince spends his last days blowing his trumpet at the Checkerboard; starves to death
  • The Navajo word for bad spirit translates to “He Who Brings Darkness Back to the Canoe”; the expression for planting “snow sprinkled on the ground”
  • Two city men with severe ADD (and severe interest in armchair archaeology) attempt to murder an ex-Nazi who only wishes to atone under Christ
  • A clown in a brand new white sparkling Lincoln plummets off a cliff — a shortcut; an innovator — and swims ashore for a drink at Maria’s
  • ”Nothing is wrong that’s natural” twice before a fight doesn’t quite break out because cowboys don’t fight but sing
  • Three clueless Texas teachers seek out authenticating an authentic cowgirls-and-Indians, John-Ford shootout at the Bowman trading post

All this surrounds and involves Ring Bowman, Little Sant of the previous novels all grown up, in a comic tussle with death — no longer a bronc rider, and, indeed, seemingly a different character with a different character’s background — he sinks into quicksand: Over 140 pages he sinks into quicksand and stares at a painting with 24, 25, 26 horses left by Son of Twenty-six Horses, a reminder of the marks left on the world, however small, by his artist friend and himself, of the marks shared between friendships and those left with strangers.

Eastlake during a televised 1968 interview with the South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Having it compiled before me, I realize only now what this final Checkerboard story was all about — these very marks. It’s a confusing conclusion, being almost exclusively the series’ and Eastlake’s meaningful vignettes with the barest minimum connecting them into a cohesive (or incoherent, I might suppose) whole. Still, Eastlake’s writing is as masterful as ever, and it’s a wonder how his writing’s disappeared so deeply into obscurity. Most of his novels and stories remain out of print.


”Look up there. It just came to me. I can see for the first time. I have been trying to see with my eyes and eyes are not for seeing—they are only a small part of seeing. You have got to feel. Now I see up there because I feel it, because I am beginning to understand and feel. I see up there that all those strokes add up to twenty-six horses—not twenty-five—twenty-six—all running across the cliff. He did it. My friend left a mark. I guess I never made it. I have not left anything. Wait. If that’s all the mark he made he didn’t leave much either. But he left a lot of other things. He did a lot of other things. He left his mark on me. That’s quite a lot. He affected another person. That’s small but that’s quite a lot. And I buried a medicine man. I rescued a poet, saw the end of a flyer and brought animal life into the world, lay with a girl and knew what Nice Hands held. Small things but maybe they affected this world—left a mark. I was here….Ring Bowman was here.”

reviewed February 2013, revised December 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s