Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813
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 seeking to hang Loop Garoo. They are led by a spokesman, Bo Shmo, who delivers a hilarious parody of the leading arguments of Reed’s literary enemies. Loop’s reply to Bo is such a succinct summary of Reed’s poetics that it is often quoted: “What if I write circuses? No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.”
Reed has certainly let his novels be anything they want to be, and they are never the same thing twice. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down delivers his now-familiar Neo-HooDoo picture of the United States, and it is appropriate that his first use of the HooDoo aesthetic was in a Western.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 967
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 first act is to take over the town of Video Junction by placing a charm on the radio waves. In action modeled on the Theban story of Dionysus and Pentheus, Loop destroys the men of the town and sends the women and children into the mountains, smoking, drinking, and riding nude on goats. Like Dionysus, Loop has control of the people’s minds and begins his revenge against the Pentheus of the story. He performs a HooDoo ceremony to gain the necessary spiritual power.
Then follows a series of magical events that portend Drag’s demise, one as dismembering as that of Pentheus. Loop’s incantations cause Drag’s skin to itch. He sends a nightmare to Drag’s green horse (Germanic hordes descending on Rome) in order to enervate and steal it. (The horse was among Drag’s lovers.) He places his brand on Mustache Sal, his own former lover and now Drag’s mail-order bride, to use her in his stratagems. She begins a plot to poison her husband and take over his ranch. One sees her out in the mountains mixing a witch’s brew. Loop appears at Drag’s wedding to issue a prophecy about Drag’s fate and appears simultaneously at two other locations, broadcasting HooDoo from the Yellow Back Radio Station and stampeding Drag’s cattle. Loop later appears in the Yellow Back saloon to perform two symbolic acts: Using his whip, he first strips the marshal of his star and then the Protestant preacher of his crucifix. When Drag hires the famous killer John Wesley Hardin to kill Loop, the white python of the HooDoo mysteries squeezes Hardin to death. When this ploy fails, Drag calls upon the Pope, who, he thinks, will help him defeat Loop. Meanwhile Chief Showcase has notified Field Marshall Theda Doompussy Blackwell and Pete the Peek, Congressman, that now is the time to attack Drag and win over the West. Through the Pope’s wisdom, Drag locates Loop, arrests him, and prepares to execute him by guillotine. When the Pope visits Loop in jail it is clear that they are old friends and adversaries. The Pope insists that Loop return to Heaven to pacify a former lover. Loop, an immortal force that the Pope cannot compel to obey, determines to stay on Earth and lead the forces of disorder. Loop, in fact, expects to suffer a martyrdom rivaling that of Christ; at the last moment, however, the two children arrive in a Chicken Delight truck to announce the discovery of paradise, and immediately afterward the United States Army, headed by Theda, arrives in taxis to surround the people of Yellow Back. The soldiers kill Drag’s cowhands with ray guns; Drag, in a duel with Theda, falls backward in a drunken stupor into the pit of carnivorous swine; Amazons descend from the mountains to kill Theda and his soldiers, and Loop escapes the gallows unscathed. All the survivors of Yellow Back follow the children to the future earthly paradise, while the Amazons choose to return to the forest, now liberated from the threat of American institutions, and Loop on his green horse leaps into the sea to catch up to the Pope’s ship returning to Rome. This task on Earth completed, Loop apparently returns to join the cosmic forces.
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