Myth meets magic realism in Robert Gish’s Cedar Valley-based novel
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Author Robert Gish admits a perverse fondness for the villains he writes about in his latest book, “River of Ghosts: A Cedar Valley Odyssey,” particularly Edmund.
A skinny, young miscreant, Edmund is consumed by cold rage with a knack for bringing out vulgarity in people — and exploiting it, along with his boss, the corrupt smut-king Stubbs. On the flipside is Edgar, an Anglo-Native American college student and talented writer exploring his Native American heritage, and Royce, a college professor and family man who antagonizes Edmund. They all serve as catalysts to evil, climactic events in the novel, set for release Oct. 5.
“As an author, your characters are like your children. They get in your head and you live with them. Sometimes it’s hard to shake them,” said Gish, laughing. “I listen to the voices. I give a lot of credence to the mystical aspect of imagination, what it does and how it plays with reality.”
A professor emeritus and university distinguished scholar at the University of Northern Iowa. Gish taught in Cedar Falls from 1967-1991 and served as associate dean of humanities and fine arts. He later served as director of ethnic studies and professor of English and ethnic studies at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
Now retired, Gish and his wife make their home in Albuquerque, N.M., where he teaches writing and cultural studies.
He will present a program and book signing at an Oct. 17 event at the Hearst Center for the Arts.
In the novel, he pits two towns against each other — college community vs. factory/commercial town in a spiteful mayorial contest — in the midst of hysteria, harassment, abduction and murder.
Gish, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, weaves together Native American mythology, magic realism (combining realistic narrative with surreal elements of dream or fantasy) and the dissolution of community and university life as tensions rise and characters are pushed to the brink.
People who live in Cedar Falls and Waterloo “probably will read the book differently. In the first draft, I didn’t even name the towns because I wanted them to be more mythical.” He describes the setting as a “composite of the places I’ve lived, the universities I’ve taught at, and the people you run into in these places. Every world has a hidden identity to it. A lot of people have been ruined by expectations of tenure, for example, and there are students you like and ones you don’t like. I’ve had students that I’ve marveled at their facility with words, and others I thought should probably drop the course,” he recalled.
The Native American aspect is, he said, “part of my own odyssey. Both my parents and grandparents were born in the Indian Territories, and I grew up with all sorts of stories and myths. There’s always that struggle of living in two worlds, one foot in tribal ways and one foot moving forward in modern ways. Sometimes the easiest way to move forward is to move backwards.”
Gish invented the sturgeon myth that figures prominently in “River of Ghost,” inspired by one of his favorite authors, Herman Melville (“Moby Dick”). His love of dogs also permeates the novel. “I lost my chocolate lab after 13 years, and it’s taken me some time to get over that. I’ve got an English setter now who is from Iowa, and I named him Bix after Bix Beiderbecke.”
Not coincidentally, Gish is a jazz guitarist and vocalist. At his Hearst Center book signing, he will perform with longtime friend Bob Dunn.
Gish has published nearly 20 books, including novels, short story collections, biographies, a memoir and an allegory, “When Coyote Howls.” Presently, he is working on a short story cycle.
The Gishes are parents of actress Annabeth Gish, now seen in the FX television show, “The Bridge,” and two other children. They have seven grandchildren.
“River of Ghosts: A Cedar Valley Odyssey,” $19.95, will be available in bookstores, at online booksellers or directly from the publisher, Ice Cube Press at www.icecubepress.com.