Where the Leaphorn Leapt From
New York Times Sunday Book Review, October 28, 2001


A Memoir.
By Tony Hillerman.
Illustrated. 341 pp. New York: HarperCollins; $26.

IN 1970, WHEN HE WAS already past 40, Tony Hillerman published the first of his famously successful series of Navajo crime novels, sleuthing done courtesy of tribal police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. Learning en passant, much as readers of Patrick O'Brian learn about the British Navy by following Aubrey and Maturin, legions of Chee and Leaphorn fans became conversant with the Navajo nation and the spectacular mesas and canyons of Navajo country. They learned that traditional Navajos have a deep feeling for the beauty and harmony of the universe, as well as that (in the name of such universal harmony, perhaps?) Navajo men maintain a virtual taboo on social exchanges with their mothers-in-law.

Crime inquiries are often complicated for Chee and Leaphorn, as well as for Hillerman readers, by the Navajo terror of dead bodies (not unreasonable if you half believe that all that's evil in you stays with the flesh, and bad spirits called ''skinwalkers'' sometimes grind body parts up into ''corpse dust,'' which they sprinkle through your hogan roof).

But Hillerman's really bad characters come from off the reservation: paleface drug smugglers, land developers, crooked anthropologists. For Hillerman, moreover, Navajo religion, with its creation myths, gods and spirits like Monster Slayer and Born of Water, is as significant as anything from ancient Greece, and, it would appear, every bit as rich in suggestion as the doings of that dysfunctional family on Mount Olympus. More so, perhaps, because -- despite challenges from what Navajo call ''the Jesus Road'' and the ''Peyote Church'' -- tribal deities are very much alive, coexisting alongside mundane reality in a kind of Navajo eternal present.

Small wonder that the Navajo have repeatedly honored Hillerman, or that many readers believe he is Navajo himself (he isn't). The association is so strong, in fact, it is likely some readers will mistakenly assume that this brief memoir, written at 75, will be mainly of interest to addicts of the Chee and Leaphorn mysteries. Far from it. Hillerman does get around to discussing his books, of course, including the advice (''get rid of the Indian stuff'') from the agent who rejected the manuscript that became ''The Blessing Way.'' An appendix lists the dozens of books he's written or edited, with some notes about the origins of this quirk of plot or that actual crime or the other motive. A writer, he says, is like ''the bag lady pushing her stolen shopping cart through life collecting throwaway stuff, which, who knows, might be useful some way someday.''

But first, Hillerman tells of his own world, beginning with his hardscrabble, cotton-chopping Catholic boyhood in Sacred Heart, Okla. (pop. 34), a place where ''life was not complicated by any possibility of getting rich.'' In 1944, he left for Europe and World War II as a combat infantryman (he won a Silver Star but lost most of a foot and the sight in one eye). Patched up and finished with college, he became a newspaperman, quickly graduated from police-blotter reporting (accounts of weird crimes) to high-level political journalism (jovial anecdotes about good-old-boy dealings), then did some college teaching and ended up on the staff of the president of the University of New Mexico.

In one chapter he joyfully satirizes a campus crisis over something called the ''Love Lust Poem'' and attempts by the liberal professors -- a mix of 1930 Marxism, nihilism, hedonism and disgruntlement'' -- to shift the university from ''an educational institution'' to an ''instrument of social reform.'' Against them the Organization (Hillerman's side) only offered ''pragmatism and an overlay of Harvard envy.''

''Blessed are those who expect little,'' his mama used to say. ''They are seldom disappointed.'' She taught him to seek adventure, never to whine and never to be afraid. His father, of German stock, taught him never to envy and never to bear a grudge. To judge by this memoir, Hillerman did pretty well in all of the above.

Well, nearly all. He admits to a deep-seated blue-collar prejudice against anyone from an old Eastern family who went to a high-priced Ivy League college and had things easy. Modern manners and morals come in for passing disapproval. Even half a century on, do not mention Army intelligence to him. Hillerman manned a 60-millimeter mortar in a combat infantry company through battles for the Vosges, alongside Patton's Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge, into Germany. Throughout, whatever intelligence predicts is precisely wrong. ''Was the major reading his map upside down?,'' he wonders at one point.

Hillerman's war takes almost a third of the book. Based on memory, official Army records and interviews with his Army buddies, his account is a marvel in its rendering of sporadic brushes with death and the miserable, cold, wet confusion of winter combat. He is an expert at knowing what to leave out, and at making what he leaves in cut to the bone without seeming overwrought. Even in recounting the moment that won him a Silver Star he is as matter-of-fact as when describing how a mortar works. A German soldier with a machine pistol faces him across a railroad embankment and Hillerman, temporarily mortarless, shoots first with a .45. Then a friend tosses him a spare grenade, and a joke: ''Don't forget to pull the pin.'' He lobs it over the tracks to considerable tactical effect.

In the Third Army General Hospital at Aix-en-Provence, where he spent five months thanks to an antipersonnel mine, severely wounded fellow G.I.'s kept up their spirits by holding mock wakes before any one of them headed off to undergo Army surgery. (If you came back minus a hand you had hoped to save, you'd be greeted by shouts of ''Lefty.'') Mama would have approved of this antidote to self-pity. ''Under this determined callousness,'' he writes, ''there lay an odd kind of love.''

In a sense, seeking adventure, Hillerman went to the war like Candide and emerged a Sancho Panza, with ''some of the sort of knowledge of human behavior in stressful circumstances that writers need.'' He belongs to a generation that is about to disappear over the edge of history. Laced with humor and worldly wisdom, ''Seldom Disappointed'' is a splendid and disarming remembrance of things past.