Fans of R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002) can make a very strong case for him as the greatest American author who has ever lived. Yet even so, he has always been an little-known author and now seems fading towards total obscurity. Both in the speculative fiction community and in the world of 'serious' literature, few of even the most devoted fans will recognize his name. If Lafferty does drop out of people's awareness entirely, the world will lose more than merely a lot of great books. Lafferty's body of work, produced in a amazingly short thirteen years, is one of the great creative achievements of the human race.
"Okla Hannali", not even viewed as one of Lafferty's better novels, is a stunning achievement. Every element of the author's craft is used to near perfection: plot, character, setting, emotional arch, and language. And language. No review could do justice to Lafferty's brilliance with words, yet I must try.
"Okla Hannali" is written in many voices. An individual paragraph may sound entirely different from the next, with different vocabulary and different structure. Yet as with all of Lafferty, there is an enormous amount of method behind the madness. The voices Lafferty chooses are at every time the appropriate voices. They are the words, the styles, the flows that are exactly right for communicating the story. Lafferty set out to tell the history of the Choctaw people. To do so he had to overcome both the racist view of Indians as savages and the romanticized view of them as peace-loving and perfect. Crushing these barriers meant using some odd linguistic styles.
For instance, Lafferty tells us early on that the Choctaws never understood punctuation, and simply spoke in a stream of words without clear starts and ends. He captures this style:
"Pushmataha say that I leave my grin there grinning at him and walk out from behind it and take a ramble and a drink and a nap all the while he was hold his breath and swell up and turn purple and then I come back rested and slip into my grin again and so have him tricked"
Is reading this difficult? That's your call, of course, but you get used to it as the book goes along. But this is important. Lafferty wants to show you what life was like among the Choctaw Indians. What life was really really like.
Of course Lafferty would never settle for merely so small a goal. There is purpose here. The purpose is to document the abuses that were heaped on the Indians during the eighteenth century, bu the government. To show that no matter what excuses are offered up, there's no decent explanation for what was done to the Native American tribes in these years. And to that end, Lafferty fights with every imaginable weapon: understatement, overstatement, misdirection, fantasy sequences, subplots, historical notes, and more. Most often, though, he tells the truth. For instance when the Indians assess the land that the government tricked them into accepting in Oklahoma:
"They examined the land to the south for a month. They all realized now - (what the worldly of them had always known) - that the north-south distance was about a third of that represented to them, and that the unidsputed domain of the Plains Indians was much closer than they had been told. Three quarters of the land for which they had traded their southern acres did not exist."
R. A. Lafferty believed in things. He believed strongly, believed passionately, and fought to make readers see things his way. "Okla Hannali" is a majestic novel (though as I said it's not even one of his better books) It swings from outrageous comedy to terrible tragedy to poignant romance to gritty action so deftly that you don't notice till the end that the entire world, for one group of people was destroyed.