The Louisiana Purchase
  by Jim Goar

Rose Metal Press
Second Collection

"Since he is the only guard to walk outside my cell, and I am his only prisoner, it stands to reason that my release would also be his; and since my release is impossible, his reprieve is at best improbable. "

Reviewed by Loree Westron

When historical research is used to recreate the past on the page, it can offer us a view into a vanished world. It can educate us about facts while entertaining us with narrative. When historical research is used creatively, by exploring what is not known as well as what is, it can offer powerful insights not only into the past but also into our contemporary world. As a PhD student engaged in the creative use of research into the history of the American West I came eagerly to Jim Goar’s The Louisiana Purchase.

In the Author’s Note at the front of the book Goar sets the context for what follows: at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the United States acquired that portion of the continent, south of British-held territories, which at its widest point extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Commonly known as the Louisiana Purchase, this vast area of some 820,000 square miles was largely unexplored. In 1804, American President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an expedition through the territory with the stated purpose of locating a viable trade route to the Pacific Ocean. But Goar is not interested in going over the well-trodden territory of the Corps of Discovery and points out that his is "a different kind of book" which uses the "impossible vastness" of The Louisiana Purchase "as a framework in which a new exploration can occur". It is not, he states emphatically, a "representation or recounting of the past event" but is instead an exploration into his own life, "‘assembled from fractured myths, Westerns, Disney, fictions, childhood memories, life abroad, and primary sources". So far, so good.

Before I go any further, I feel duty-bound to mention that The Louisiana Purchase is a collection of prose poetry, not a collection of short stories as I had originally expected. That said, there are stories here – surreal, disjointed and oftentimes incomprehensible – but stories nonetheless. Take this:
President Jefferson walks off the mound. The Cardinals take the field. Ozzie Smith falls over dead. The crowd falls silent. Phil Niekro throws a ball at the sky. The ball does not return. We call it the moon. It becomes a crescent. When Jefferson holds up two fingers, the moon breaks into the dirt.
Still wanting the historical references to be the predominant motif, I grapple with that passage and try again to find meaning: President Jefferson walks off the mound. The Cardinals take the field. Okay, I think I’ve got it – having grown up in the States, I can recognise a baseball analogy when I see one. But who are Ozzie Smith and Phil Niekro, I ask myself, trying to place the names amongst the historical figures involved in the Western myth. Eventually I resort to Google and learn that Smith was a shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1980s and 90s, and Niekro pitched for the Atlanta Braves from 1964 to 1987. After Lewis and Clark returned from the west coast, Clark spent the rest of his life in St. Louis where he was Superintendant of Indian Affairs. The pieces are falling into place. But what’s all that about the moon? I turn the page and try again:
The President’s signature is printed on the face of the moon. The moon is returning to the sky. A few days pass before the moon’s rotations cease. An expert is summoned. Her explanation is brief: "The moon has been doctored." Effigies of Niekro are burned. There is a run on canned goods. We hide in our cellars and wait the tide.

Right. I get it. We’re still talking baseball here. I search the internet for information about a scandal involving Phil Niekro but only find reports about his brother Joe (also a pro baseball player) and his inappropriate use of a fingernail file. I start to feel exasperated.

A few pages further on, and the moon is still playing a central role, but I’m more confused than ever when I read:
I’m barbecuing in the snow. The red-faced bird is watching me intently. I get the feeling that I’m late. I put some honey on the moon. I offer the bird a Keystone. It accepts and drinks it quick. I’ve forgotten how to serve a moon and ask the bird. It flies away. Worthless drunk. The moon begins to burn. I begin to panic. I try to remove it. It falls through my spatula and into the fire. I feel I’ve committed a great sin.
There are still moments, however, when I get a sideways glance at an image and feel a glimmer of recognition: A tree sprouted from my penis must, I surmise, be a reference to the STDs spread to Native Americans by the red-faced bird, aka White men. Am I seeing things which don’t exist? For a while I ponder the sudden appearance of the elephant which bursts water lines and causes widespread flooding. Then I link this symbol of the Republican Party with earlier references to yellow ribbons and an election, and come up with the year 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office and Iran released the 52 American hostages it had held for the previous 444 days (yellow ribbons were a sign that the hostages weren’t forgotten during their time in captivity). My head is spinning now but I’m feeling quite smug. At last things are making sense.

When I encounter the speaker with two blue eyes, one from cataracts, the other from birth I consider, giddily, that it is the subject of my own research, Clark’s half Indian son. Am I, though, merely seeing – through my own hazy vision – what I want to see? Once more I’m plunged into self-doubt.

The Louisiana Purchase is a beautifully produced little book, full of obscure and surreal imagery. Read as a collection of stories, it is all but incomprehensible. As a collection of poems, however, it just might be stunning.

Read an excerpt from this collection on Rose Metal Press' website (PDF)

Loree Westron is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester and her work has appeared in US and UK journals and anthologies. She is on the editorial board of Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, and is the administrator of the Thresholds short story forum.
Loree's other Short Reviews: Sherman Alexie "Ten LIttle Indians"

Eddie Chuculate "Cheyenne Madonna"

Cris Mazza "Trickle-Down Timeline"

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Jim Goar was born in San Francisco and has lived in Tucson, Arizona; Changsha, China; Boulder, Colorado; Bangkok, Thailand; Seoul, South Korea; Norwich, England; and, whenever possible, Brevard, North Carolina. He received an MFA from Naropa University and is currently studying Jack Spicer's The Holy Grail at the University of East Anglia. In 2010, Reality Street brought out his first full-length collection, Seoul Bus Poems. Goar edits the journal past simple.

Read an interview with Jim Goar