Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down Additional Summary

Ishmael Reed

Summary

The Loop Garoo Kid, a trickster god of the Hoodoo religion, appears incarnated as a circus cowboy in the Old West. His circus is about to play in Yellow Back Radio, its last town for the season, when the children of the town—all armed—surround them. The children had run the adults out of Yellow Back Radio and are about to do the same to Loop’s troupe, until they realize that these adults are not normal adults; circus performers, they find, still have a bit of child in them.

The circus performs for the children. Meanwhile, the town’s adults are holed up at Drag Gibson’s ranch outside town. They sign the town over to Gibson in return for his promise to slaughter the children. After the circus performance, Jake the Barker beguiles the children with tales of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola; they all decide to go off searching for it. Before they can, however, Gibson’s men arrive, shooting everyone in sight. Loop rides off to draw their fire.

Stuck in the desert, Loop has to shoot his horse for food. Bo Shmo and his posse of neo-social realists find him and bury him in sand up to his neck. They smear his face with jam so that he will be eaten alive by insects. Loop is rescued by Chief Showcase, a high-tech American Indian who drops from the sky in a homemade helicopter, scares off Bo’s gang, and revives the hero with a canteen filled with champagne.

Meanwhile, Gibson’s men return to the ranch and report the slaughter of the children. Just when he is most confident, Gibson hears a mysterious voice and sees a pair of giant black hands at the window. He shoots at the reanimated collection of various animal parts—his wife—and calls in the local doctor to make her death legitimate with a certificate. In a desert cave, Loop performs Hoodoo rituals to send curses on Gibson and his men.

The next morning, Mustache...

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Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is at once Reed’s revelation of his new aesthetic, called “Neo-HooDooism,” and his answer to some of his most acerbic critics, both white and African American. Reed constantly averts generic expectations in the novel, so it is difficult to define the work with any precision. It is a cowboy story that overturns the traditions of the television Western, a science-fiction/fantasy novel about real-life politics during the 1960’s, and a historical novel that denies the accepted meanings of Euro-American history. Reed’s novel shocks the reader into revising entirely a traditional worldview founded on conventional assumptions about race, art, sex, and morality.

The incident that generates the plot occurs when the nefarious Drag hires assassins to attack the children who have gained control of Yellow Back Radio. The children dream of the Seven Cities of Cibola, the utopian paradise that lured Spanish conquistadores in the fifteenth century. Drag, concerned that the profoundly democratic dreams of the children will disrupt his regime, orders his men to slaughter them. They also kill Zozo Labrique, a member of a visiting carnival and the HooDoo priestess who founded the HooDoo church. Before she dies, she gives her friend Loop a “mad dog’s tooth.” She has taught him all he knows about “wangols” (spells and enchantments), so it is his responsibility to avenge her death.

At this point, the novel’s action dissolves into a bewildering series of incidents in which Loop is challenged to demonstrate his heroism within a HooDoo context. In essence, the characters fight a war of ideas. For example, Loop is immediately contested by Bo Shmo. Bo’s quarrel with Loop concerns the political significance of art, not the importance of property, yet Bo and Drag are alike in seeking absolute power. The contest, then, is between Loop’s imaginative freedom and Bo’s regimented control. When Loop refuses to yield to Bo’s demand for a politicized, mundane, “realistic” novel, Bo buries him in sand. Loop is rescued by Chief Showcase, who in Euripidean fashion appears in the sky as a deus ex machina in his helicopter. Showcase becomes Loop’s secret ally for the rest of the novel, as he, like Loop, rejects a Eurocentric worldview.

Back at the ranch—Reed’s novel is replete with such clichés of the Western melodrama—Drag is sadly contemplating the dissolution of his marriage, wishing for heirs—“nice obedient progeny.” His wife, a...

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Bibliography

Fabre, Michel. “Postmodernist Rhetoric in Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke Down. ” In The Afro-American Novel Since 1960: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: B. R. Brüner, 1982. The best discussion of the novel to date. Fabre scrupulously analyzes the rhetorical strategies Reed employs in the novel. Fabre also links the novel to a discussion of postmodernist experiments.

Fox, Robert Elliot. “Blacking the Zero: Toward a Semiotics of Neo-HooDoo.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 95-99. Although this is a difficult article because of the technical language of contemporary literary criticism, Fox’s discussion of the African background of Reed’s Neo-HooDooism is valuable. Fox explains that Reed’s motif of the blackened circle beside the empty circle is central to Reed’s artistic vision.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Fox places Reed in the context of recent African American experimental novelists and gives a brief discussion of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Fox argues that Loop’s real adversary is the pope and discusses the pope’s function in the novel.

Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Critics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Martin places Reed within the context of African American literary history, especially the conflict between Reed and the “black aesthetic” of Amiri Baraka. Martin also defines Reed’s Neo-HooDoo aesthetic.

Mvuyekure, Pierre-Damien. The “Dark Heathenism” of the American Novelist Ishmael Reed: African Voodoo as American Literary Hoodoo. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007. Examines the intersection of Hoodoo and jazz in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.

Reed, Ishmael. “Ishmael Reed on Ishmael Reed.” Black World 23 (June, 1974): 20-34. An essential article for understanding Reed’s perspective. The interview focuses on the literary intentions of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Reed explains that the meaning of “Yellow Back,” for example, derives from nineteenth century Eastern hack writers who wrote “dime Westerns,” called “yellow backs.”

Schmitz, Neil. “Neo-Hoodoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmael Reed.” Twentieth Century Literature 20 (April, 1974): 129-138. Schmitz discusses Reed’s experimental fiction and argues that Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down degenerates into polemics. The proselytizing for HooDooism unacceptably slows the novel’s action.