Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by Ishmael Reed

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 War era, contemporary with the novel.

In the final section of the novel, Pope Innocent arrives from Europe, giving an idea of the cosmic scope the conflict is about to assume. The pope, representing Western orthodoxy and authority, is upset that his American minions, the likes of Blackwell and Gibson, have been unable to subdue Loop Garoo. He has not always been Loop’s foe, however: His discussion with Drag reveals that Loop had originally been a member of the divine family of the Christian mythos. Put off by Jehovah’s demand of exclusive worship, Loop left him. Jehovah, however, now dominated by the feminine principle represented by Mary, needs Loop’s help. Only Loop could keep the feminine force under control: He knew her as his lover, Black Diane (the Greek Artemis). One of her followers appears as Mustache Sal, another former lover of Loop, now Drag’s wife.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down may be enjoyed on a number of levels. A parody of Western thrillers, it is as exciting and quick-paced as any of the horse operas it parodies. One index of its success as a story is a laudatory review in Western Roundup, a rodeo magazine written by and for modern-day cowboys. On another level, the novel functions, as does all Reed’s fiction, as a critique of American culture. Because the Western as a genre illustrates the errors of American culture—looking on the resources of the American West, including the human resources of its aboriginal people, as sources of wealth to be exploited—Reed uses the genre to exorcise those errors.

On a third level, the novel attacks critical presuppositions about what constitutes African American fiction. Instead of limiting himself to the black urban experience, Reed takes the popular forms of the majority culture and skews them to his own comic vision. The reaction of the literary establishment, black and white, to Reed’s choice of form is embedded in the novel itself. The Marxist “neo-realists” who have claimed black fiction for their own political uses show up as a posse...

(The entire section is 1,780 words.)