Not Enough Indians by Harry Shearer

shearer.jpgLong time readers of this site will know that I lean heavily to the lazy side of life. I am easily distracted and lack focus; I have long bouts of melancholy combined with delusions of deep insight and eloquence. This blog is kept a float by an addiction to books and inertia. I mention this because I recently finished reading Not Enough Indians by Harry Shearer and am not sure exactly what to say about it.

Searching for inspiration, I thought it might be interested to compare the reviews and comments posted at Amazon. After all this is what a potential reader would see if they went to the worlds largest online bookseller contemplating purchasing said book. Why not compare and contrast the opinions there and then offer my take? The result is below.

Dueling book reviews – professional edition :
From Publishers Weekly

Shearer, probably best known for his work on The Simpsons and This Is Spinal Tap, sets his farcical first novel in the world of Native American–owned casinos. After being “savaged by downsizing, by outsourcing, by plant-closing,” the citizens of withering Gammage, N.Y., successfully petition Washington to be recognized as the Filaquonsett tribe so they can build a casino. Their gambling operation has a negative impact on the casino of a neighboring tribe, and that tribe settles the score by having a toxic waste dump built next to the Filaquonsett casino. It’s a silly setup, and Shearer uses it to beat home points about greed, materialism and ethnic identity. The book often becomes a morass of easy one-liners (“the process was proceeding at a pace that glaciers and snails would envy”). Stereotypes about Italian-Americans and Native Americans similarly fail to go over the top, instead occupying the queasy middle ground between funny and unfortunate. One bit of inspired nonsense involves a group of diaper-wearing grownups (they consider holding DiaperCon XII in the Filaquonsett reservation), but the scatological humor won’t be enough to pull readers through.

From Booklist

Prolific comic actor and writer Shearer, a Saturday Night Live alumnus and the voice of more than a dozen characters on The Simpsons, lodges tongue firmly in cheek for this wickedly funny debut novel. The fictional town of Gammage, New York, seems on the brink of financial ruin until one of its citizens proposes a fiendishly clever plan: petition for Indian tribal status, open a casino, and bask in the glow of cash flow. The “long-lost” Filaquonsett tribe is soon up and running, despite the fact that there’s not a Native American in the bunch. From mercurial casino magnates to buzz-cut government drones, Shearer pokes merciless fun at human foibles. There’s irony-deficient Gammage school superintendent Roger Gardner, who uses product placement to turn a profit at local schools; Jewish Indian casino owner Joseph Catspaw, obsessed with collecting bad TV figurines; and Indian Affairs bureaucrat Hap Matthews, who would “fade into the woodwork if only the woodwork weren’t so colorful.” Though Shearer’s ending falls a bit flat, readers can bet on lots of guffaws along the way.

Dueling reviews – amateur edition:

Sally Friend: Laughed Until I Cried (Five Stars

As a long time Simpsons fan, I was thrilled to see that Harry Shearer had written his first novel, NOT ENOUGH INDIANS, and even more thrilled to see it was partially set in a fictitious town in upstate New York, very much like the type of town I grew up in. Once I started reading, the exciting and hilarious rollercoaster ride began: With his finely honed eye for the absurd and the outrageous, Shearer swept me into the ever-amusing world of small town politics with its overly earnest, self-important players, the machinations of government lobbying, and the well oiled, craftily calculated operations of a glitzy, cheesy Vegas-style casino, plopped in the middle of New England. Without missing a beat, Shearer nailed every hilarous nuance, and made me laugh so hard, I cried. If you like your comedy sharp, smart and biting, and love a novel populated with a host of characters entirely unaware of their horrific yet charming flaws, then NOT ENOUGH INDIANS is the perfectly delightful and satisfying read you’re looking for.

A. Ross: Stale Satire (Two Stars)

Comedian/satirist Shearer, best known as the man of a thousand voices on “The Simpsons” and as bassist Derek Smalls of “Spinal Tap”, takes a whack at comic fiction in this brief novel. Unfortunately, like so much contemporary satirical work, the yucks simply aren’t that plentiful and the whole enterprise is rather tedious. The plot revolves around a small, struggling upstate New York town’s attempt to recast itself as “rediscovered” Native American tribe — thus allowing it to build a mega casino and start printing money. This setup brings out such themes as greed, constructed identities, big government, and corruption for Shearer to play whack-a-mole with.

The dramatis personae populating this framework resemble nothing so much as a netful of fish dumped into a barrel for Shearer to blast away at ungracefully. There are the local council members and milquetoast mayor. There is the Green party guy who lacks convictions, much less any courage. There is the local public radio drone, the pedantic local activist, and local huckster — each of whom is satirized via the most banal means (and of course, are not actually Native American). Then there’s the self-made Italian-American casino bigwig who’s behind the scheme. The lack of effort put into his goombah speech and mannerisms could itself be construed as a parody of a parody! Not to mention his trophy wife, complete with boob _and_ nipple job. Har har. There are the competitors from a nearby Indian casino, led by an a former Jewish garment hustler from Brooklyn. And let’s not forget the bland Washington bureaucrats who help all the pieces fall into place. One expects characters in a comic novel to be rather one-dimensional, but these border on zero dimensions.

There are a few good ideas buried in all this, and these generally occur when Shearer reaches for the truly bizarre. For example, the mayor who is a secret member of an adult diaper-wearing subculture, or the casino manager’s obsession with rare ’70s and ’80s TV show action figures. But these are few and far between as the plot unwinds in a reasonably silly and predictable manner, neither particularly funny, nor particularly biting. Shearer appears to have spent so much time and energy crafting little one-liners and bon mots, that he failed to notice how stale the whole thing is.

So where do I come down? Somewhere in between, I guess. I think Booklists “wickedly funny debut novel” is perhaps too kind. I didn’t find it wickedly funny. Rather, I found myself chuckling on occasion and smiling at the ridiculous but all-too-true-to-life characters. A. Ross’s delightfully harsh review is fun to read but a little over-the-top itself. Not sure why the book’s deficiencies made him so angry, but he sure has the knack for critical reviews!

This isn’t a laugh out loud type of book, or one that you immediately tell your friends about, but if you like Shearer’s sense of humor it is a short farcical romp. It doesn’t ask much of the reader, so it is hard to expect a lot of it. I think MSNBC got it about right in their fall books round-up:

The uncomfortable premise could easily have fallen into the trap of trying to say something important about the ethics of Indian gaming. But Shearer is more interested in a “Northern Exposure”-like examination of petty town politics, and the book succeeds most on that level, as a study of small towns as beehive-like power structures.

There are places where the pace slackens, and the ending, while clever, may be too cute by half. Nevertheless, the book benefits from a virtue much needed and rarely observed in satirical novels: it knows enough to be 200 pages instead of 300 pages

Bottom line: funny but not that funny; likely to depend heavily on one’s sense of humor. If pushed I would give it two-and-a-half or three stars meaning mildly entertaining.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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