The Sentence: It's such an unassuming title (and one that sounds like it belongs to a writing manual); but, Louise Erdrich's latest is a deceptively big novel, various in its storytelling styles; ambitious in its immediacy.
The Sentence is part of a vanguard of fall fiction — by writers as disparate as Jodi Picoult, Gary Shteyngart, and Michael Connelly — that tries to capture a splintering America during this long pandemic moment. For Erdrich, these strange times call for a ghost story that sometimes shifts into social realism: specifically, into an account of the first months of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd.
An absorbing and unquiet novel, The Sentence, like the era we're living through, keeps us readers on the alert for the next improbable turn of events looming ahead of us. Erdrich's story starts in a slapstick crime mode, reminiscent of the novels of Elmore Leonard. Our narrator, a wry and resourceful woman named Tookie, recalls the misdeed that, years earlier, landed her in federal prison.
Back then, Tookie drove a refrigerated grocery van and she was asked by a grieving friend to steal the corpse of a recently deceased lover away from another woman's house. Tookie pulled off the snatch, but didn't notice that packets of cocaine were taped under the corpse's armpits. Arrested, Tookie took the fall. She tells us that "the most important skill I'd gained in prison was how to read with murderous attention."
Mercifully released after 10 years, Tookie, who's Native American, lands a job at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis — the very same independent bookstore that Louise Erdrich owns in real life. Erdrich herself makes sporadic appearances here, but she's by no means the most jarring presence in the bookstore, as Tookie ominously tells us: "In November 2019, death took one of my most annoying customers. But she did not disappear."
Flora was a white woman, who patronized Birchbark, which specializes in Native books. Tookie calls her "a stalker — of all things Indigenous." At first Flora's spectral activities are confined to footsteps and book reshufflings. But, as the pandemic, manifests itself in late winter of 2020, Flora's behavior grows more sinister — she wants to take possession of Tookie, who shifts from pissed-off to petrified. There's also a suspicion that Flora's death may have been caused by the last sentence of the last book that she was reading.
Throughout her long career and most recently in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Night Watchman, Erdrich has interwoven the workings of things seen and unseen into her writing. White appropriation and the attempted decimation of Native identity have also been Erdrich's abiding subjects. But these unprecedented times call forth unusual strategies from writers: In the second half of The Sentence, Erdrich layers on a style closer to creative nonfiction as Tookie witnesses the protests in Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd. Here's Tookie describing her drive to work:
I passed burnt-out stores with walls like broken teeth. ... I passed a woman with a shopping cart full of children. . . . Pockets of peace, then full-out soldiers in battle gear. ... I passed a popcorn store that was open and I stopped to buy popcorn. The popcorn smell modified the smell of spent tear gas — sour, musky chalk. ... I got stopped by a cloud when I was nearly home. It was a cloud of emotion. I came to a halt and tried to breathe my way through the mist. It was cleared by the loud curfew alert on my phone."
Though I've never put Norman Mailer and Erdrich together before, sections like this one remind me of Mailer's 1968 masterpiece, The Armies of the Night, his so-called "nonfiction novel" chronicling an earlier time of fracture and unrest in America.
All is tumultuous in The Sentence — the spirits, the country, Erdrich's own style. One of the few constants this novel affirms is the power of books. Tookie recalls that everyone at Birchbark is delighted when bookstores are deemed an "essential" business during the pandemic, making books as important as "food, fuel, heat, garbage collection, snow shoveling, and booze." No arguments here. And I'd add The Sentence to the growing list of fiction that seems pretty "essential" for a deeper take on the times we're living through.