(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...

(The entire section is 813 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 967 words.)