Indians and Whites Mix in Minnesota

`THE SNAKE GAME,'' Wayne Johnson's first novel, is a series of linked stories that feature a common setting - northern Minnesota - and a set of characters, Indian and white, who interact with one another over a specific time period: 1951-1983. It opens with a story about the Indians who inhabit a precarious world between the reservation and non-Indian society, living on the shores of the lake and serving as guides to tourists. It's a hard life, but something about it and the men who live it attracts a young white boy named Martin Sorenson, whom we meet in the second story. Martin spends summers at the lake with his family. Repelled by the personality of his father, an overbearing doctor who thinks he knows it all, and offered little in the way of support by his retiring, bird-like mother, Martin feels more at home with the Indians' laconic, stoical outlook on life. But in obvious ways, he is an outsider in their world.

Some of the stories are about Indian characters: wise old Osada; voluble ``Tomato''; handsome Red Deer, whose promising career in baseball comes to an abrupt end; Vonny, who uses her powerful charms to attract Red Deer only to find they have more effect on his little brother, Bear.

Other stories focus on Martin and his family, and on Martin's difficult but rewarding encounters with the Indians, especially Bear. The stories are arranged chronologically, each bearing a date. We get to see the main characters grow up and go through various rites of passage, including Martin's decision to head north for Canada when he reaches draft age. Although he's learned to shoot, it's only to kill something he would eat, and he sees no connection between anything he values and the war in a distant country that the older men in his family all support.

``The Snake Game'' is billed as a novel and, with its chronological order, single locale, and recurring characters, there is no reason why it might not have made a compelling one.

But too many of the stories wander off vaguely in directions that are never followed up, and few of the characters, aside from Martin, are thoroughly developed. The stories are uneven. The first, for example, concerning some Indians who decide to get back at an arrogant schoolteacher, is narrated so murkily that it's hard to tell exactly why the Indians are so angry and what it is they think they're doing. The same is true of a later story, ``Act of Love,'' in which a couple's guilt and grief over losing a child is surrounded by needlessly confusing characters and incidents.

Mr. Johnson received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the well-known Iowa Writers' Workshop. And, like other graduates of professional writing programs, he writes serviceable, if hard-bitten, prose: nothing objectionable stylistically or thematically - unless one is getting a little tired of serviceable, hard-bitten prose about taciturn people who live in the heartland.

``The Snake Game'' falls into the category of worthy fiction: It has some funny moments, and some poignant ones. It speaks out on behalf of the Indian ethos without falsely romanticizing their hard life or softening the characters' sometimes harsh attitudes.

The problem is not that the subjects of young boys growing up or of American Indians trying to hold on to their heritage are scarcely unexplored territory these days. Novelists seldom invent new topics.

What distinguishes fresh and original fiction from the more run-of-the-mill variety is the author's ability to add to a topic, to shed new light on it, rather than to take a topic and rely upon what reader and writer already know about it as a way of lending depth to an otherwise thin story. ``The Snake Game'' is a novel that feeds off its themes instead of enriching them. It takes more than it gives.

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