This Town Sleeps
By Dennis E. Staples. (Counterpoint, 224 pages, $26.)
Bemidji writer Dennis E. Staples, an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation, doesn’t seek to glorify reservation life in northern Minnesota. Alcohol, drugs, gang violence, poverty, racism and homophobia all play recurring parts in his debut novel, “This Town Sleeps.”
The book opens with a horrific stabbing in the woods at night, a murder that works more to establish a dark, tragic tone than to set up any real mystery that needs to be solved. Most of the novel is narrated by Marion, a tribal member in his mid-20s who lives and works in a small town and has a push-pull, love-hate relationship with the nearby reservation where he grew up. For him it’s a place rich with close friendships and vivid memories, woods full of pine and lakes full of fish, but also scarred by family and tribal dysfunction.
Marion, who is gay, has a mostly physical relationship with Shannon, a closeted white man he knew in high school. Swirling around their unequal pairing are stories of their extended families, including several standout women characters. Set pieces take readers to a casino, a big Labor Day powwow, a sweat lodge, an Indian cemetery and an old playground enlivened by an animal spirit. Interestingly, Marion’s gayness is not that big a deal in this environment; Shannon’s secrecy engenders much greater anguish.
By turns cynical and plain-spoken, Staples is a guide with inside knowledge about the lives he depicts. Despite his occasionally clunky and disjointed prose, he makes a clear-eyed and distinctive debut.