(from chapter fourteen)
“Maybe it was like what happened to blind people who got a sharper sense of hearing. After losing his arm, maybe the rest of his body toughened up to prevent something like that happening again. Didn’t mean he was invincible. Just meant he could take a lot of hurt. Sure, he felt ever fucking moment of it but he was still standing.”
“Slow Bear” is the 16th (!) novel from long-standing crime writer Anthony Neil Smith. Not a sequel so much as a character study spin off from his oil boom drama “Worm,” we catch up with Micah “Slow Bear” Cross again to see what happens after the Rez cop was left in perilous shape at the end of that story.
“He was kind of a gadfly, a troublemaker who ended up siding with the good guys in the end,” said Smith, when I pried about Slow Bear’s transition between books. “I think I originally killed him, but changed my mind. He just seemed kind of interesting to do more stuff with.”
Now, in “Slow Bear,” we see Micah very much alive, yet glaringly compromised. The book opens with him sitting at the casino bar, nearly half the man he used to be: he’s been let go from the Rez police force with a handicapping injury, indicated subtly when he slides the poker chips back with “his right hand, his only hand anymore.” Among the casino’s disorienting maze of one-armed bandits, we’re re-introduced to Slow Bear as a one-armed hero – an unassuming one, at that. Now collecting Disability checks while struggling with the poverty and fringe elements of the Reservation, Slow Bear sways in the shadow of deceptively cinched up heroin habit, hanging on by nursing beers (among a idiosyncratic obsession with orange juice) as he flounders in the fray of North Dakota desolation.
The plot pops off quick when his friend Vlad pleads with Slow Bear to help him wiggle out of a an accidental lover’s triangular double-homicide. The crime scene accelerates – Vlad pulls SB in deeper than he bargained for; since he is dropping all kinds of forensic wisdom that basically tells Vlad he’s fucked, Vlad panics and threatens to blackmail him as the brains behind the killings. The pressure cooks until Slow Bear exhumes his decayed values in the quickest yet most inconvenient way – fatally shooting Vlad in a him or me ultimatum.
It’s nothing new to Slow Bear – he was really good at being a bad cop, like the book says. But when his estranged partner Trevor reveals other developments in the Reservation’s underbelly, uncovering connections between a chief they call The Hat and the above-the-law oil tycoon named Santana, violence between the two “friends” ensue, quickly spinning it all down a drain with nowhere dry to get a grip. Slow Bear finds himself fighting to keep from banished from the Rez as he crosses over to the dark side, doing “jobs” that never seem to end. Oh, and add Slow Bear’s doting on a bartender named Lady to keep things in an even more precarious imbalance. If only love could be the only crime – instead she becomes a zombiefied pawn in a sex-trafficking operation that yanks Slow Bear deeper into the undertow for her honor.
It could be a tall-order for a white author – the responsibility of accurately portraying modern Native culture without presenting it as a charity case or an irreparable broken version of its original soul, while overlooking the fragmentation and vice that continue to threaten it would only prove a writer’s ignorance. But Anthony Neil Smith has been in the crime-fiction game for so long he’s gotten to a place where he can write whatever he wants well, guided by a settled research and accumulated empathy. He picked (and further constructed) an incredibly complex character in Slow Bear to show the nuance of universal hard-knocks that transcends culture itself. There’s meth, opiates, the monopoly of natural resource, and then perhaps the hardest to witness: the image of a grown-ass man playing video games like Call of Duty. It’s all symbolic spillover of white trash desperation that bleeds into Slow Bears own existential crisis, a man suspended between “countries” of morality as he ponders his next move in this treadwater life. For better or worse, the nefarious antagonists Smith has conjured decide his moves for him – until he’s pushed to his own definitive borders.
What I love about crime-fiction is what conversely infuriates me – the inherent precariousness of its very craft. The genre will always be in danger of crushing itself beneath its own “heaviness” – if it’s not the absurd explosions and wind-tunnel adrenaline, it’s the mopey, histrionic inner-dialogues that threaten to turn it into a sensationalist parody of itself. But that’s the grace of it – when you crack open a book of noir and think I wonder how this author will pull it all off?
While I’m new to Smith’s expansive body of work, his approach in Slow Bear is a breath of fresh air; the way his mindful fever dream pace makes way for calm, introspective reveals. This, I feel, is often more convincing to real life: For anyone else who’s seen a dead body, shot up too much heroin, or done a home invasion on someone, I think you’d agree that it tends to be very matter-of-fact, anti-climactic, more melancholic than face-melting. In other words: The very weight behind these stories aren’t always ones you’d instinctually tell with overzealous, animated gusto.
Not to say Slow Bear isn’t exciting – in fact, it’s absolutely riveting. There are some fantastic scenes of pot-boiling “magic” that seem informed by the best aspects of exploitation film. Like when he disappears behind a wall of flame, only to re-appear concealed in a hole in the ground, breathing through straws. Then there’s that very convenient dose of Narcon that is offered by a sympathetic sex-slave right in the nick of time when we think Slow Bear has finally tapped out by his vice he never saw coming. Wild, but why not? Because we have become so attached to Slow Bear at these points, that we demand that he cheats death at any cost. Smith’s inclusive style builds a bridge between Slow Bear’s calamities and the reader, the way his pondering inner dialogue addresses us directly. It’s as if he’s asking us what we would do – since we are finding ourselves so firmly in his shoes, he knows we can almost feel our soles burning.
“Slow Bear” doesn’t end wrapped in a bow with any kind of deep exhale. In fact, in ends so abruptly with so many questions still unanswered. Yet we leave Slow Bear so determined that it would be a crime not to outline a sequel. But no need to hold your breath when Smith has given us an ingenious bundle of straws to gasp through in the meantime.