The Last of a Half-breed / on The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch
Welch’s sad book is set in mid-70’s rural Montana somewhere on the outskirts of the Fort Belknap Indian reservation. In this tragic story, cheap alcohol fuels a prevailing sense of alienation and longing for an imagined elsewhere—life should be better somewhere else. A perennial overgrowth of American Indian under-education, alcoholism and infighting captures the reader in a depressive continuity of life’s potential for hopelessness. Welch gives us a masterful retelling of boredom amidst the desolation of failed dreams. This is an American Indian story of existential angst that goes far beyond a clichéd and ghettoized other. Welch leaves us with a narrative that calls into question the very real confrontation with Jim Loney’s identity as a so-called half breed (Gros Ventre/Anglo), his broken family, his restless love life, and his hard-to-place value as a fallible man. James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney soberly regards the plight of the American Indian, troubled personal identity, and the existential problems that arise from filial neglect and societal estrangement.
We always have to be cautious when confronting racial issues and how they are addressed, especially with regard to the personal bias we bring to such matters. Although Welch does write about an American-Indian, he tells the story from the uneasy perspective of Jim Loney and his immediate relationships. This story is one of human identity, an identity that’s become displaced, and then broken. We already come to the novel knowing that American-Indians have been displaced in their own land, but in The Death of Jim Loney existential problems of belonging lie underneath the poverty of Loney’s day to day circumstances. If any American-Indian issues are politicized in the book, they are carefully implied and are not overt. In fact, such issues of displaced identity are suggested by Welch with graceful subtlety. For example, when Welch writes about Loney’s half-breed status, he has Loney’s girlfriend Rhea suggest to him that to be a half-breed is to be lucky to choose from one set of ancestors or the other: “Oh, you’re so lucky to have two sets of ancestors. Just think, you can be Indian on one day and white the next. Whichever suits you” (2008, p. 13). The naïve irony of his girlfriend’s comment does little to comfort us (and him) since we know that society doesn’t give us this choice. Here in America, if you are born half white and your other ethnic half is a minority group, you must identify as that minority group, if you don’t, you’re flatly dismissed as being in a state of self-hating denial.
If you happen to belong to a minority group, any resulting problems of racial and personal identity are left for you to sort through openly, or not. If you don’t have the tenacity to deal with it, this can lead to strong feelings of displacement and a general sense of not belonging. But is this is somehow a uniquely American-Indian dilemma? We already know that it’s not; we don’t have to be American-Indian to question our place in the world. One doesn’t need to be a minority to contemplate one’s existence. However, with this said, we’ll have to acknowledge that a minority status can lead to feelings of alienation. Displacement from the larger group can lead one to feel like an outsider.
This takes us to the philosophy of Existentialism. The general focus of Existentialism is on the existence of the individual and the choices he makes from there, if he is able to recognize that his existence relies on his own self-determinism and not on an external morality, or objective standards of living. In the strictest sense, he always has the freedom to choose one way or another. Let us be sure to make the point that Welch’s Loney never tries to philosophically solve his existential dilemma, we’re only left with his broken family life, his semi-romantic love life, his tenuous friendships, his alcoholism, his violence, and his eventual demise. We are matter-of-factly presented with all these unresolved problems of his existence that lead Loney to a self manipulated death. In Colin Wilson’s first book The Outsider he covers the Existentialism of the alienated outsider from the philosophical perspective of many authors and thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche wrote at length about overcoming the status quo, about questioning existence and the power of the individual to forge a new path above and beyond the prevailing norms. Welch’s Jim Loney is precariously at the precipice of this kind of rejection of the way things are—he is on the very edge of transcendence—yet he never gets there, he just doesn’t know how. “He [Loney] tried to think of all the little things that added up to a man sitting at a table drinking wine. […] all the people and events were hopelessly tangled as a bird’s nest is his mind” (Welch, 2008, p. 18). Loney inadvertently shows us that personal growth can’t flourish if we absent-mindedly drink away our thoughts. In The Outsider, Wilson speaks of the way Nietzsche had to reject the complacency of traditional values in a society that stifles free thinking: “Unless he can evolve a set of values that will correspond to his higher intensity of purpose, he may as well throw himself under a bus, for he will always be an outcast and a misfit” (1956, p.142). Loney never gets to a higher purpose. His goal is not to challenge tradition. Loney’s choices are (self) limited.
Loney’s existence awkwardly stares at him, and by extension we try to think of how this reflects our own lives. It’s only by his inability to squarely lift himself up from his plight, do we confront a desire to do this for ourselves. This problem of Loney’s is carefully expressed by Welch when Loney watches a neighbor hanging her laundry. He does this while contemplating where his life should lead from here. “He wasn’t ready to do anything but sit on his step and think, and so he watched the two shirts twist and knot around each other and he thought, not of Seattle, but of the blue veins on the backs of his neighbor’s legs” (2008, p.42). This kind of contemplation with the bare facts of reality recall Jean Paul Sartre’s character Antoine Roquentin in the book Nausea, and his famous existential epiphany with a chestnut tree, yet with one critical distinction: Loney can’t see a way to transcend his basic choices. He can’t grasp his own basic existential freedom. In Nausea Sartre writes: “Existence is not something which lets itself be thought of at a distance: it must invade you suddenly, master you, weigh heavily on your heart like a great motionless beast—or else there is nothing more at all” (1964, p. 177). For Sartre man’s very confrontation with nothing and of existence impels him to grow into what he wants to be. Loney doesn’t know he can change, therefore Sartre would say he was acting in ‘bad faith.’ When we’re acting in bad faith we are not acknowledging our freedom to choose another way, we’ve blindly accepted our so-called fate. In bad faith we are the victims of circumstantial fatalism.
Welch’s Loney is opaque and inaccessible to himself, he “…couldn’t sleep because if he slept he would dream, so he stared into the blackness of the small bedroom” (2008, p. 94). A few lines later, Loney thinks of the next day where he’ll be hunting bear with his sometime friend Myron Pretty Weasel, where he blankly thinks: “After tomorrow’s slim purpose I will simply exist” (Welch, 2008, p. 95). These are frightening thoughts when we learn later that Loney will shoot the curiously named Pretty Weasel, presumably mistaking him for a bear in the cattails. In Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic/philosohical work Strangers to Ourselves, she details the complex ways an outsider is perceived and how they perceive themselves. It’s made clear that the foreigner internalizes much of their perceived self-identity and hatred, as much as society imposes these insecurities onto the other. We’ll be safe to suggest that American-Indians have been a kind of native foreigner, sadly thought of as foreigners on their own homeland. This becomes a kind of self-exile enacted by Loney’s futile escape from belonging to his family or anywhere else as he eventually runs headlong unto his death at Mission Canyon. Kristeva writes: “…according to the utmost logic of exile, all aims should waste away and self-destruct in the wonderer’s insane stride toward an elsewhere that is always pushed back, unfulfilled, out of reach” (1991, p. 6). Although Kristeva is not an Existentialist, her views on foreigners, the stranger, the other do coincide with Loney’s lack of belonging that leads to a feeling of being exiled within his own family and community. Loney is never ‘at home’ in the world.
We never really understand where Loney’s going except down. The rambling intensity of his actions are magnified by the coldness of his estranged father Ike, especially when Loney suggests that their situation could’ve been better. Ike ignorantly questions this: “Shit, what would we have done but drink ourselves to death?” (Welch, 2008, p. 132). After this, Loney walks away from his dad’s trailer and shoots into one of the windows with the shotgun his dad gave him minutes earlier.
If we return to the very first page of the story, we find Loney recounting an odd Biblical passage that sticks itself in us because of its bald pessimism. “Turn away from man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Welch, 2008, p. 1). We’re not told that this is from Isaiah 2:22, but that doesn’t matter when we think of what it means, and what it might mean for Loney. Turn away from a breathing man, because there is not accounting for him because he’s mortal. This has to be a Biblical way to emphasize the fallibility of man against an all perfect God. Yet, for our secular use here, the haunting phrase speaks to a darker message: no one living is to be trusted. Loney came from the chaos of a broken home. As we witness his confused adult life, his options are few. Loney in his depressive complacency barely trusts anyone. Midway in the book, a little boy named Amos After Buffalo watches Loney cut his dead dog from the frozen mud on Thanksgiving day—a day that’s not really an American-Indian holiday. This little boy is recalled before Loney dies where Loney talks to a stray black dog in Mission Canyon. “You tell Amos that Jim Loney passed through town while he was dreaming. Don’t tell him you saw me with a bottle and a gun. That wouldn’t do. Tell him you saw me carrying a dog and that I was taking that dog to higher ground. He will know” (Welch, 2008, p. 147).
James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney carries us over to a deep sense of sadness. This in-depth sadness is brought about by Loney’s inability to maneuver his circumstance to even a slightly better place. His displaced existence glares at him and it hurts us to have read about it. It is in this liquor-fuelled alienation that we can learn to empathize with people, as we can recognize such tendencies in ourselves. It is as the philosophers show us, that it is our choice to blindly accept fatalism, the status quo, the norms, the way-it-should-be, or not. If we can’t do this hard work of liberating ourselves nobody else can do it for us. This ultimately reveals how James Welch has helped us, by showing what life looks like when we refuse to see ourselves as full of potential, and when we fail to see ourselves as living with pure possibility.
Kristeva, Julia. (1991). Strangers to ourselves (Leon Roudiez, trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1964). Nausea (Lloyd Alexanader, trans.). New York, NY: New Directions.
Welch, James. (2008). The death of Jim Loney. New York, NY: Penquin Classics.
Wilson, Colin. (1956). The outsider. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.