Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483
The theme and setting of Welch’s second novel, The Death of Jim Loney, are similar to those of his first. Loney is a thirty-five-year-old half-breed living in Harlem, a small Montana town near the reservation. The differences between Loney and the narrator of Winter in the Blood , however,...
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The theme and setting of Welch’s second novel, The Death of Jim Loney, are similar to those of his first. Loney is a thirty-five-year-old half-breed living in Harlem, a small Montana town near the reservation. The differences between Loney and the narrator of Winter in the Blood, however, are considerable. The earlier book’s narrator lives on the reservation and visits the towns. Jim Loney resides in town and visits the reservation, but he is not at home anywhere. He is a “breed,” half non-Indian, half nonwhite, neither here nor there. His Indian mother is absent, perhaps insane; his white father is physically present in Harlem, near enough for Loney to know he is “the worst sort of dirt.”
Even more than Winter in the Blood, this is the story of absolute isolation. Even the protagonist’s name is a play on “lone” and “lonely,” a fact underscored by his nickname, “The Lone Ranger.” The narrator of Winter in the Blood felt nothing for the people in his home but realized that at least there was a place called home. The relationships seemed empty but still carried memories.
In contrast, Loney and his sister, Kate, were abandoned by their mother as infants. Their father, now a sixty-two-year-old barfly living on pasteurized cheese and scrounged beer, abandoned them as children. Kate has made a career in education and wants to bring Loney to Washington, D.C., to live with her. Loney’s girlfriend, Rhea, a teacher from a wealthy family in Dallas, dreams of escaping with him to Seattle.
Kate, determined and competent, sees the extent of Loney’s danger more clearly than Rhea, but Kate has clamped down her own emotional life as the price of her own survival. Rhea feels Loney’s vulnerability, but she is out of her depth, lacking the experience to see the implications. “Oh, you’re so lucky to have two sets of ancestors,” she exclaims. “You can be Indian one day and white the next.”
Loney takes some steps to try to uncover his past, but these yield nothing he can start from or move toward. The two strands of his past haunt him in memories and dreams he cannot penetrate: an ominous Bible verse from Loney’s European American side (“Turn away from man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?”) and daily visions of a dark bird, which Loney thinks must be something “sent by my mother’s people.”
Death finds its occasion when the dynamic between Loney and a hunting companion generates an accidental shooting. Loney’s companion, a childhood acquaintance and successful, assimilated Indian who learned ranching from “white men from down the valley,” is killed. Loney did not shoot him intentionally, but he feels that the intention was near him. He claims responsibility in order to stage his own execution at the hands of the reservation police.