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 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...
(The entire section is 967 words.)
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...
(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...
(The entire section is 1026 words.)