by Barry Lopez

Published by Knopf

163 pages, 2004




Angry Bystanders

Reviewed by David Abrams


Barry Lopez is a voice crying in the wilderness.

Over the course of six non-fiction books (including 1986's National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams) and eight works of fiction, Lopez has served as a literary activist, raising his voice in a crowded room to tell those around him that something's not right, that all is not well with the world. In Arctic Dreams, pristine landscapes of blue ice and crystalline snow are threatened by economic development and global warming. In an earlier collection of short stories, Winter Count, a flock of herons descends on the streets of New York, a herd of white buffalo sings like heavenly guides, and desert stones form mystical constellations -- the weird, wonderful beauty of nature reminds us to slow down and contemplate the uncomplicated self.

Lopez's writing is serene but powerful. You can sense something exciting and maybe a bit deadly working below the surface of the words, like the thrumming buzz you hear when standing near power lines.

In his latest collection of fiction, Resistance, that power line snaps and the live wires go everywhere, shooting off sparks with white-hot fury. Here, Lopez lets loose with a wilderness-splitting howl, the sound ricocheting from tree to tree.

In the opening story of Resistance, an art curator living in Paris receives a disturbing letter from home, sent by the "Office of Inland Security," which informs him that his activities have raised suspicions in the homeland agency and that he's to be picked up and brought in for questioning. He gets in touch with his friends by e-mail -- a circle of fellow writers, scholars and artists determined to dismantle government tyranny -- only to find out they've all received the same letter. Since graduating from college together, they've been crying in their own private wildernesses -- "We chip away like coolies at the omnipotent and righteous façade" -- and now the paranoid, post-9/11 government has caught up with them, labeling the members as "parties of interest."

We had come to regard the work of writers and artists in our country as too compliant, as failing to expose or indict the escalating nerve of corporate institutions, the increasing connivance of government with business, or the cowardice of those reporting the news.

They decide to melt into the underground, but not before leaving a written record of testimonies -- nose-thumbing good-bye notes to their busybody government agency. The remainder of this slim, trim collection is devoted to their tales of defiance and, ultimately, healing.

We meet a Buenos Aires restaurateur who learns how to overcome her bitter resentment of her philandering father; a carpenter who survives horrific childhood abuse; a wounded veteran ("a blind eunuch with a face of melted wax") who returns to Vietnam to reconcile his loss of innocence; a translator who crosses a Chinese desert by camel, turning her back on complacent materialism.

Nearly all of the stories are told by men and women wounded, physically and emotionally, by evil in the world. Pissed-off at what they've witnessed in their lives, they retreat to jungles, deserts and mountains, hoping to escape from all the bad baggage of civilization. Here, in the wilderness, many of them find the balm that heals.

In "The Bear in the Road," the rare sight of a grizzly in the plains of northern Montana helps guide the narrator toward enlightenment: "At twenty-nine I continued to experience what I once named the Great Burden, the weird combination of oppression and challenge which grows out of knowing the incompetence of the powerful."

Two paragraphs later, he adds: "I was an angry bystander. I'd no power to intervene, and had no intention of dropping the work I was already committed to, not in order to raise someone else's awareness, promote greater indignation, or organize opposition." The bear, "a shadow in the lesser darkness with his shoulders against the sky," helps him to see beyond the boundaries of his own difficulties.

Resistance reads less like a book of short stories than it does a series of passionate essays -- the kind Lopez is famous for in his works of non-fiction. Constructed and conceived as personal testimonies against corruption and tyranny, the stories get bogged down in exposition and many of them end too abruptly with calculated artifice.

Still, it's hard to ignore Lopez's voice calling us to action. It's also nearly impossible to read this book and not feel like you need to dislodge your butt from the recliner and get out there and do something: carry a sign, write your congressman, boycott Wal-Mart. Reading Lopez might just make you a better person.

Thematically, Resistance boils down to three sentences in a story called "Nilch'i" (the Navaho word for divine wind): "The world is beautiful and we are a part of it. That's all. Our work is not to improve, it is to participate."

Though it often falls short as compelling fiction, Resistance is not futile. It has a dangerous vibrancy, like a dancing live wire, which demands we pay attention. Polemically-driven, Lopez's fiction asks us not to be angry bystanders, but to resist totalitarianism at all levels, starting with the grassroots. It's a call to raise our collective voice in the wilderness, while there's still wilderness left in which to cry. | July 2004


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.