Book Review: The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979)

Set in a small town in Montana, this is an excellent portrayal of Jim Loney’s self-destruction. Now I’m not one for the “troubled macho man who has to be alone” stuff. This book isn’t like Five Easy Pieces. I find swagger and wild self-destruction portrayed glamorously really tiresome (and don’t get me started on depictions of very beautiful -God forbid they’d be ugly! – mentally frail women). But this book deals with Jim’s loneliness and alienation in such an honest way that its monotony and heartbreak are to the fore.

The plot centres on Jim Loney, his life, alcoholism, his past, and the title pretty much sums it up. James Welch (1940-2003) is famous for writing about Native Americans in American society and is regarded as one of the most important Native American writers of the post-1968 generation. Jim Loney is a “mixed-blood”, of white and Indian parentage and he is certainly haunted by his past. The novel is an interesting depiction of modern life for Native Americans because alongside Jim, who is lost on the margins of society, there is also his sister Kate who has a successful career in Washington. As well as being a portrayal of Native American life, Jim’s character is an excellent depiction of anyone who feels alienated – the unemployed, those battling alcoholism, anyone.

I don’t think I’d read anything set in Montana before this but it provides a fantastic backdrop to the story – harsh, cold, sparse and remote. In ways, I felt the small town setting could be any small town in Ireland -everyone knows everyone’s business, the bartender watches all the goings-on, as does the policeman, Painter Barthelme. The cold, harsh backdrop is mirrored in the simple, pared-back prose. Welch conveys so much with very few words. “‘He’s not selfish at all,’ said the fourth voice. ‘He just…hurts.’”

What I found interesting was how someone (Loney) who seems to be doing well as a young man – good academically, sporty and so on then sort of crashes and burns. “All through high school Loney had been the smart one, the one they all got their answers off, the one who lived in that proper boarding-house run by the preacher. What happened?” Despite an absent mother and a really awful father, his sister Kate managed to get away and to build a life for herself (Is this success?). Jim just seems bogged down in his sadness, though maybe it takes a sort of courage to stay and to try to get answers so that he can understand his past and himself.

Jim does have opportunities to escape the small town, both with his sister who tries to help him and with Rhea, his lover. I was intrigued with Rhea. I really felt that she was trying to reach out to Jim but he was lost. Jim’s character and troubles are portrayed so well that you can understand why he can’t accept the help offered to him – it just seems impossible. In something like Into the Wild, I found it so frustrating that the main character didn’t grab hold of the opportunities for love he encountered on his journey (remember that gorgeous old man he met? – heartbreaking). With Jim, however, we see his brain so addled with drink, his pain and confusion tormenting him and I, for one, could sort of understand him. And that’s what I look for in a good read, being able to get under someone else’s skin. This is well worth checking out. – Ailish Larkin

The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979) (Book Depository link)

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