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Yellow Back Radio Broke Down by Ishmael Reed

Sunday, October 5, 2014 § 0

A Cowboy Western Mono(logue) of Vernacular Witticisms in Yellow Back Radio Broke Down

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1968) by Ishmael Reed is an innovative American novel written with the true spirit of creativity that blossomed in the late 1960s when innovative techniques were used to enliven the novel with a creative approach to dialogue, characterization, and typographical design. Yellow Back Radio Broke Down is an extended dialogue without quotation marks that creates a sense of the spoken word as a form of western American dialect portraying the black travelers of the west, who were sometimes unfairly treated by the western settlers. This novel anticipates the writing of the current decade with a wakeword approach to narration which brings out the literary wit of the narrator, who tells the story of Loop Garoo in this modern western, a genre that is known for its sense of verbal play, Joycean puns, and use of visual metaphor. Originally published by Doubleday in 1969, a new edition has been published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2000 with a collection of essays A Casebook Study of Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down edited by Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure for the Center for Book Culture in 2003. Yellow Back Radio Broke Down continues the oral tradition of the black narrator, who reveals skills in jazz improvisation and verbal poetics, as he participates in the settling of the American west.

Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid. 

                                                             Yellow Back Radio
                                                             Broke Down
                                                             Ishmael Reed

The novel begins with a western narrator telling the story of the Loop Garoo Kid in a monologue without quotation marks, the spoken words of the narrative voice represent a summarization of the western plot which begins with an optimistic attitude based on an appreciation of eroticism and art esthetics.


She sent me a letter in the last town, Zozo. She wants me to come to her. The old man spends his time grooming his fur and posing for non-academic painters. 

                                                              Yellow Back Radio
                                                              Broke Down
                                                              Ishmael Reed

The introduction of the character Zozo Labrique, a black woman who is traveling west begins the plot of the circus which involves a Barnum and Bailey cast, who encounter an ambush further up the road. With the introduction of the character Zozo Labrique the novel should interest those who are looking for intelligent innovative characterizations in the American style.


Zozo Labrique lit a corncob pipe. She wore a full skirt and a bandana on her head. Her face was black wrinkled and hard. The sun suddenly appeared, causing the gold hoops on her ears to sparkle.

                                                              Yellow Back Radio
                                                              Broke Down
                                                              Ishmael Reed

This portrait of a woman who intrigues the narrator soon turns to tragedy when the group of travelers are surrounded by bandits who open fire on the the encampment in a way which foreshadows the domestic terrorism of the 21st Century. The events described occur suddenly without any warning signs, as the traveling characters of the westward migration cross a death zone where anything might happen.


Loop Garoo was dreaming of bringing down the stars with his tail when all at once he smelled smoke. He awoke to find horsemen surrounding the circle. The children began to scream and some of their clothes caught fire from torches the bandits had tossed into the area. Rapid gunfire started up and the children fell upon each other and ran about in circles as they tried to break the seizure's grip.

                                                            Yellow Back Radio
                                                            Broke Down
                                                            Ishmael Reed

After this massacre in which Zozo Labrique is shot in the head, and a circus clown is hung from a tree, the first section of the novel called The Loop Garoo Kid Goes Away Mad ends. The violence of the bandits parallels the border guards of the present decade where the logic of causality is not revealed in the writing of the novel, and this ambush seems a senseless act of violence.


The conflict caused by the Neo-Social Realist school of writing produces the dialogue between Bo Shmo and the Loop Garoo Kid, and the debate on literary style continues when Loop Garoo is buried up to his neck in the sand, where he is rescued by an Indian in a helicopter who offers him a glass of champagne.


Deserts are for visions not for materialists. Read any American narrative about crossing apparitions, ravens walking about as tall as men, the whole goldern phantasmagoria.

                                                            Yellow Back Radio
                                                            Broke Down
                                                            Ishmael Reed

The Loop Garoo Kid has finally met someone sympathetic to his style after the desert strategies, with a trend in character names that is similar to my own narrator Doves-on-the-Wind from my novel-in-progress Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography. The innovative novel has been influenced by the fanciful cosmology of Native American literature which is the realization of a lifestyle based on poetic symbolism involving the use of long phrases as conceptual art names.


Chief Showcase, Loop thought, remembering the Indian names he'd heard like Toohoolhoolzote, Looking Glass, and Man-Afraid-Of-His-Horse which opened up new possibilities of being named after phobias, objects, or even words that didn't mean anything but sounded like music.

                                                            Yellow Back Radio
                                                            Broke Down
                                                            Ishmael Reed

This passage reminds me of the improvisational skills of the black jazz musicians who have developed performances based on esthetic theories that are free of the rigid classical constraints of note-for-note written scores. The psychogenesis of the novel reveals an evolution from a poem from objective description into poetic stanza structure, a neo-Hoodoo manifesto, and a talking book based on African talking drums. The step towards a poetic novel creates a richer texture of verbal imagery which parallels other avant garde movements inspired by Surrealism, and with the use of a freer Abstract Expressionism that often projects the thoughts of the unconscious mind outwards into an artistic musical or literary form.


You see, I'm Chief Cochise's cousin so that makes me Chief Showcase. Yuk yuk yuk.
                                                         Yellow Back Radio 
                                                         Broke Down
                                                         Ishmael Reed

Since this novel was written there have been similar crimes committed in Tucscon, Arizona, so that now we can solve this aggressive hate crime incident from the past. We see two convicted shooters who made the front page attacking women in a style similar to the traveling circus where the aggressors revealed a tough border guard mentality. 

Another way Reed rewrites the Western novel is through the absence of quotation marks or any other device to indicate to the reader that there is a dialogue going on (which heralds The Color Purple by almost twenty years), just as there are no indented paragraphs. Actually, the whole novel is presented as a long narrative poem in five books, with short and long stanzas. More specifically, the narrative structure of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is similar to that of “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” a poem originally collected in Conjure (1972). This basically makes Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a “Talking Book.”
                                                   “Scatting Arbitrarily” and 
                                                    Blowing Hoodoo [Western]
                                                    Like Charlie “Bird” Parker:
                                                    Loop Garoo’s Be-bop/
                                                    HooDoo Improvisations in
                                                    Yellow Back Radio 
                                                    Broke Down
                                                    Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure

The essays gathered in A Casebook Study of Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down edited by Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure trace the history of southern narrative that began as an accurate journalistic account of the black people breaking free of slavery in America, and gradually creating their own esthetic theories which represent the genius of improvisational performance. 

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1968) by Ishmael Reed takes its place with the innovative novels of the 1960s which include The Exagggerations of Peter Prince (1968) by Steve Katz, and The Death of the Novel and Other Stories (1969) by Ronald Sukenick, novels which show a liberation from conventional realism towards a more art inspired writing using techniques that include tape recorded conversations that Andy Warhol introduced in his novel (1968) which is composed entirely of tape recorded Pop art dialogue.

More recently Nathaniel Mackey in a four novel sequence entitled From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Bedouin Hornbook (1986), Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), Atet A. D. (2001), and Bass Cathedral (2008) has brought poetic writing to the innovative novel with his own evolving personal mythology influenced by jazz and the abstract wake word culture of the west.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1968) by Ishmael Reed is a modern western which portrays the tragic drama of the migration of wagon trains across the states, as the lovable characters experience lethal encounters with hate criminals who may show prejudice towards the black settlers. With Ishmael Reed the innovative novel is beginning to show its potential for poetic abstraction with the genre of the modern western, where the personal charm of the poet/storyteller creates a narrative that is interrupted by the future conflict of immigration and legalization. American history is traumatized by a few cowboys who disrupt the peacefulness of the settlers, as they migrate across the desert sands of the western states, and Ishmael Reed has portrayed this drama in  a novel that could easily be adapted to film with characterizations that verge on the Surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali while expressing the verbal wisdom of the west.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He edits Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.



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