Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In a self-interview in the journal Black World, Reed explained the title of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down word by word. “Yellow back” refers to the pulp-novel fiction that created the myth of the Old West at the end of the nineteenth century; “radio” continued it; “broke-down” means stripped to its essence. The novel, then, is a dissection of the popular culture images of the Old West and an indictment of the way they portray minorities.
Reed’s first HooDoo hero, the Loop Garoo Kid, is the black cowboy who runs the circus at the opening of the novel; clues to a larger identity begin to accumulate as the novel progresses, and Loop is revealed as an eternal, the trickster figure from African myth, mistakenly identified by Western rationalists as the power of evil. Loop Garoo (whose name means “werewolf” in Haitian Creole) is the eternal good guy of Western fantasy.
The bad guy is Drag Gibson, a powerful rancher who jealously protects his way of life by trying to kill Loop and his circus people. He is hired by the people of Yellow Back Radio to return their town to them; it has been taken over by their children—an allegory of what seemed to be happening to the United States when the novel was written in 1969. Drag’s men attack and defeat the circus train, and Loop is stranded in the desert. He is picked up, however, by Chief Showcase, “the only surviving injun,” in a high-technology helicopter, one of the many examples of anachronism in the novel. Showcase, as another exploited minority, identifies with Loop and offers clandestine aid. Loop returns to haunt Drag’s men on the desert.
When Loop continues on the loose, the secretary of defense, General Theda Doompussy Blackwell, is called in. With Congressman Pete the Peek providing military appropriations, Blackwell hires the scientists Harold Rateater and Dr. Coult to develop weapons to subdue Loop. Here the satire is aimed at the military development of the Vietnam...
(The entire section is 813 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins in the epic manner, establishing the epic stature of the hero, the Loop Garoo Kid, and previewing the main line of the action. The novel is cosmic in scope. Loop has existed at least since the ancient Egyptian civilization and will still be around to play the Las Vegas casinos in the twentieth century. He appears now as a black circus cowboy, traveling in the early nineteenth century on the American frontier, in the company of a dancing bear, a juggler, a barker, and a HooDoo woman, Zozo Labrique. Within the larger time frame, Loop is the cosmic jester, the human spirit, the principle of liberation. Drag Gibson, his primary antagonist, is the principle of evil, or tyranny. In this localized story, Loop is a HooDoo version of the Western hero, using African magic instead of a Colt .45. Drag (whose name refers to a cowhand rounding up stragglers in a cattle drive) is a rancher with the ambition to control the town of Yellow Back Radio and then extend his influence beyond to Video Junction and the power structure in the East. The media metaphor identifies the conflict; Drag’s control of the media would give him control of America. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is an updated parody of the Western dime novel, a comic epic of the Old West.
Whether by chance or by fate, Loop and the traveling circus enter Yellow Back Radio precisely when it is in need of a hero. They are greeted by the mysterious murder of their advance man and the presence of only children on the streets. Having revolted against an oppressive older generation, the children now control the town, but the helpless leading citizens have gone to Drag for help. This is the moment for which Drag has waited. He sends his cowhands to massacre the troupe and the children (in a classic wagon-train attack). The only survivors of the bloody battle are Loop, who escapes into the desert, and two of the children, who head out in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola, the technological paradise of the future. Before dying, Zozo passes on to Loop her magic charms; then, trapped in the desert by a band of social-realist badmen, Loop has the promise of even more charms from Chief Showcase, who rescues him in a futuristic flying machine, a helicopter. Loop soon settles in a mountain cave, practicing HooDoo rituals that will combat the evil influence of Drag. His...
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Loop Garoo Kid, a trickster god of the Hoodoo religion, appears incarnated as a circus cowboy in the Old West. His circus is about to play in Yellow Back Radio, its last town for the season, when the children of the town—all armed—surround them. The children had run the adults out of Yellow Back Radio and are about to do the same to Loop’s troupe, until they realize that these adults are not normal adults; circus performers, they find, still have a bit of child in them.
The circus performs for the children. Meanwhile, the town’s adults are holed up at Drag Gibson’s ranch outside town. They sign the town over to Gibson in return for his promise to slaughter the children. After the circus performance, Jake the Barker beguiles the children with tales of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola; they all decide to go off searching for it. Before they can, however, Gibson’s men arrive, shooting everyone in sight. Loop rides off to draw their fire.
Stuck in the desert, Loop has to shoot his horse for food. Bo Shmo and his posse of neo-social realists find him and bury him in sand up to his neck. They smear his face with jam so that he will be eaten alive by insects. Loop is rescued by Chief Showcase, a high-tech American Indian who drops from the sky in a homemade helicopter, scares off Bo’s gang, and revives the hero with a canteen filled with champagne.
Meanwhile, Gibson’s men return to the ranch and report the slaughter of the children. Just when he is most confident, Gibson hears a mysterious voice and sees a pair of giant black hands at the window. He shoots at the reanimated collection of various animal parts—his wife—and calls in the local doctor to make her death legitimate with a certificate. In a desert cave, Loop performs Hoodoo rituals to send curses on Gibson and his men.
The next morning, Mustache...
(The entire section is 764 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is at once Reed’s revelation of his new aesthetic, called “Neo-HooDooism,” and his answer to some of his most acerbic critics, both white and African American. Reed constantly averts generic expectations in the novel, so it is difficult to define the work with any precision. It is a cowboy story that overturns the traditions of the television Western, a science-fiction/fantasy novel about real-life politics during the 1960’s, and a historical novel that denies the accepted meanings of Euro-American history. Reed’s novel shocks the reader into revising entirely a traditional worldview founded on conventional assumptions about race, art, sex, and morality.
The incident that generates the plot occurs when the nefarious Drag hires assassins to attack the children who have gained control of Yellow Back Radio. The children dream of the Seven Cities of Cibola, the utopian paradise that lured Spanish conquistadores in the fifteenth century. Drag, concerned that the profoundly democratic dreams of the children will disrupt his regime, orders his men to slaughter them. They also kill Zozo Labrique, a member of a visiting carnival and the HooDoo priestess who founded the HooDoo church. Before she dies, she gives her friend Loop a “mad dog’s tooth.” She has taught him all he knows about “wangols” (spells and enchantments), so it is his responsibility to avenge her death.
At this point, the novel’s action dissolves into a bewildering series of incidents in which Loop is challenged to demonstrate his heroism within a HooDoo context. In essence, the characters fight a war of ideas. For example, Loop is immediately contested by Bo Shmo. Bo’s quarrel with Loop concerns the political significance of art, not the importance of property, yet Bo and Drag are alike in seeking absolute power. The contest, then, is between Loop’s imaginative freedom and Bo’s regimented control. When Loop refuses to yield to Bo’s demand for a politicized, mundane, “realistic” novel, Bo buries him in sand. Loop is rescued by Chief Showcase, who in Euripidean fashion appears in the sky as a deus ex machina in his helicopter. Showcase becomes Loop’s secret ally for the rest of the novel, as he, like Loop, rejects a Eurocentric worldview.
Back at the ranch—Reed’s novel is replete with such clichés of the Western melodrama—Drag is sadly contemplating the dissolution of his marriage, wishing for heirs—“nice obedient progeny.” His wife, a...
(The entire section is 1026 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Fabre, Michel. “Postmodernist Rhetoric in Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke Down. ” In The Afro-American Novel Since 1960: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: B. R. Brüner, 1982. The best discussion of the novel to date. Fabre scrupulously analyzes the rhetorical strategies Reed employs in the novel. Fabre also links the novel to a discussion of postmodernist experiments.
Fox, Robert Elliot. “Blacking the Zero: Toward a Semiotics of Neo-HooDoo.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 95-99. Although this is a difficult article because of the technical...
(The entire section is 370 words.)