Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down Characters

Ishmael Reed

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In a novel such as this, a melange of comic epic, fantasy, myth, parody, and roman à thèse, one should not expect, as Reed warns the reader in an early episode, any verisimilitude that would make possible the usual development of character. Reed clearly debunks conventional attitudes toward the novel form. The characters are either comic exaggerations or parodies. Loop, the protagonist, in a mad and improbable fashion, follows the path of the epic hero. Like Satan in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) he is the antagonist of the prevailing order, but, unlike Satan, he does not gradually degenerate into a reprehensible creature. Instead he is, as William Blake considered Satan, the real hero of the story. His name is a pun on the French word for werewolf, loup-garou (a term brought by French settlers to Louisiana, where it is used in folklore to refer to a human being who has been transformed into an animal), and while he resembles Odysseus, Aeneas, Wyatt Earp, and other frontier heroes, he is perhaps closest to the fabulous creature out of African, American Indian, and other folklores—the Trickster. He spends much of the novel in his mountain cave (his underworld) performing demonic mysteries. He whispers fantasies into the ears of the populace, is seemingly everywhere at once thwarting the plans of the enemy, eventually suffers imprisonment and imminent martyrdom, but magically escapes as forces converge to destroy his executioners and establish a new society. His final leap off the mountain into the ocean (from where on the American continent might this be?) is superhuman. Such a comic treatment...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The Loop Garoo Kid

The Loop Garoo Kid, a black circus cowboy, an American Hoo-Doo manifestation of Lucifer. His evil reputation, however, is unwarranted: He identifies himself as “the cosmic jester,” an eternal pleasure principle. A member of the divine family, he is now sought by the Christian God as the only one who can prevent the unhealthy domination of the eternal goddess, who appears variously as his former girlfriend Diane (the Roman goddess Diana) and the Virgin Mary.

Drag Gibson

Drag Gibson, a wealthy and powerful rancher, Loop Garoo’s nemesis. He started with nothing, riding drag (hence his name, though it also implies transvestitism) for other cattlemen, but he amassed a fortune through his cunning and ruthlessness. Drag also is a supernatural character: The explorers Lewis and Clark appear near the middle of the novel and reveal that Drag has escaped from hell. His struggle with Loop Garoo is therefore a form of the eternal struggle between good and evil.

Mustache Sal

Mustache Sal, Drag’s wife, formerly Loop Garoo’s girlfriend. Sal marries Drag in answer to a personal ad, motivated by the opportunity to inherit his wealth. She crawls before Loop on the night before her wedding, begging to have sex with him. Instead, Loop brands a hell’s bat on her abdomen.

Chief Showcase

Chief Showcase, an American Indian, Drag’s lackey. A cousin...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A reader expecting a conventional set of characters will be disappointed. Although the plot seems to be fashioned after the conventional “horse opera,” Reed twists and turns the action so as to make the traditional outline of the Western almost indecipherable. It is as if by caricaturing the basic premises of an indigenous narrative form Reed also calls into question fundamental ideas about American culture.

The two main characters, Drag Gibson and Loop Garoo, are the “bad guy” and “good guy.” Their characterization depends upon the categories of meanings they represent rather than on their intrinsic, “realistic” personal traits. The two characters act in ways consistent with the sets of values they symbolize. Drag is villainous because he represents a constellation of values antithetical to Reed’s Neo-Hoodooism. Drag symbolizes property, capitalism, legalism, materialism, rationality, and hypocritical restraint, identified by Reed with the white establishment. Everything that Drag does or says, then, must be seen in the context of Reed’s argument against establishment values.

In contrast, Loop symbolizes the liberation Reed posits in Neo-Hoodooism: imagination, freedom, creativity, and joy. Loop’s magic (his art) is dependent upon his intuitive sense of life’s possibilities and upon his connection to African religion. Significantly, his loa (spirit) is Legba, “master of the crossroads,” who was given the gift of languages and who acts as an intermediary between God and humanity.

The pope’s character is also defined by his symbolic significance. He represents not only Reed’s sense of the dogmatic inflexibility of the church but also the immense wealth the Vatican controls, thus linking him to Drag’s character. Reed satirically implies a Mafia connection with the Vatican. In the pope, spirituality is depleted; force and deception are his only attributes. Loop, the priest of African religion, is presented as an obvious alternative to Christianity, which Reed sees as corrupt and lifeless.

As might be expected, Reed’s characterization is highly controversial. Many readers, for example, are offended by his novel’s women, who are mindlessly searching for sexual gratification, or by what appears to be Reed’s homophobic denunciation of gay life. Other readers defend Reed on the grounds that he is writing a satire, not “realistic” fiction, and that to interpret Mustache Sal, for example, as Reed’s definitive comment on women is to misunderstand the novel.