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Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

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Joe Barrow is a big city murder cop in 1922. A hulking, silent type who dogs the footsteps of his flashier, more loquacious partner Phineas Drummond, looming threateningly over suspects and occasionally roughing them up to get a confession or a lead. In the early hours of a late winter morning, Barrow and Drummond find themselves at the top of a government building, examining the body of a clerk, Fred Hopper, who has been extravagantly and gruesomely killed: throat slashed, ribcage torn open, heart removed. The papers quickly decide that the murder is a ritualistic killing, a conclusion spurred on by the city’s business elite, who hope to use it to foment racial violence. As Drummond pursues that line of investigation, Barrow is approached by powerful figures in the city’s leadership, who want him to prove that Hopper’s death was orchestrated by those who wish to undermine their power.

So far, we have the makings of a classic hardboiled, Jazz Age mystery. But the context to all this is that the city in question is Cahokia, a center of Native American culture and power that in actual history was abandoned some time in the fourteenth century, but in the alternate history of Francis Spufford’s latest novel Cahokia Jazz, has persisted and flourished into the early twentieth century. The capital of a state that bears the same name, which sits where in our world you’d find Illinois, it is an enclave of Native power within the United States, still ruled over by hereditary leadership and traditional ways. The people who approach Barrow are the heads of the house of Hashi, which has for generations shepherded the powerful yet also vulnerable Native state to economic and political independence. They are the Man of the Sun, the city’s king-slash-religious-leader, and his niece Couma, the Woman of the Moon.[1] As they explain to Barrow, the murder of Hopper, designed to look like an Aztec sacrifice, is intended to inflame tensions between the city’s Native and white populations (or, in the novel’s terms, takouma and takata) and to justify an eruption of violence by the Klan. After that, the playbook is clear:

“What is being attempted here is a repetition of the strategy that worked in Texas and in California, last century, and in Hawaii only twenty or so years ago. Make trouble; demand outside intervention to restore order; when you get it, make sure that the order that is restored conveniently wipes away native power and native property rights. All in line with the great unspoken principle of American history, detective. Which is, if it’s worth having, the red man shall not be allowed to keep it.”

The reason Barrow is being approached with the task of preventing this eventuality is that he is himself a red man (though also a black one, or in the city’s terms, taklousa). At the same time, however, he is an outsider, raised in a Nebraska boys’ home with no knowledge of his parentage or ancestry, ignorant of the city’s lingua franca, Anopa. This makes him an ideal point of view character for a novel like Cahokia Jazz. As a detective pursuing a murder case, Barrow can shoulder his way into any ethnic or socioeconomic enclave, interviewing industry magnates, academics, and factory workers and giving us their perspective on the city’s workings (and dysfunction). But as an outsider, he is constantly being explained to, witnessing the city’s mysteries without fully understanding them. Barrow’s investigation is full of dramatic event, excitingly rendered. He is chased out of a takouma neighborhood by a silent, mask-wearing mob; caught in a gunfight with a bootlegger’s goons; and flees a bloodthirsty KKK mob while carrying a nun. But the purpose of all this action is less excitement as it is elucidation.

Beyond the utilitarian function of Barrow’s insider-outsider status, one of the novel’s key concerns is his attempt to resolve, once and for all, the question of his nature and place in the world. Couma slots quite naturally into the role of the femme fatale, but her seduction of Barrow is of a more holistic nature than the one characters of her type usually attempt. What she, and her uncle, and their supporters and retainers, keep offering Barrow is a home, and a role. He is, they tell him, Thrown-Away Boy, a figure from legend who manages to be of service to the people, the tamaha, despite being raised away from them. For Barrow, this enticing offer runs counter to his loyalty to Drummond, whom he has followed almost blindly since their meeting in the trenches of WWI, and who is not only openly disdainful of any cause greater than the pursuit of his own wealth and ease, but appears to have been involved in the plot to make Hopper’s murder look like a Native ritual. It also clashes with Barrow’s other identity as a jazz pianist, who is being urged by his fellow players to ditch the straight life and come on tour. Over the course of the novel, Barrow must choose. Is he takouma or taklousa? Is he a cop or a musician? Is he someone else’s goon, or is his capacity for violence his to direct? Is he a man of the city, a loyal servant of the Hashis, or is he Drummond’s right-hand man?

Cahokia Jazz, then, is doing three things. It is a noir mystery, and an alternate history, and a tale of self-discovery. It does all of these things quite well—though, obviously, on the matter of its historical recreation and revisionism, I am far from being able to offer the final word; it’s surprising that none of the major book reviews have been able to offer a Native American perspective on the novel in what has otherwise been rather comprehensive coverage. But the question one must inevitably ask while reading the novel is: why is it doing them at all? Beyond imagining the Native American equivalent to Wakanda and setting a Jazz Age mystery within it—an enjoyable project, to be sure, and one that Spufford pulls off with verve—what is being attempted here? And why, to state the obvious but slightly uncomfortable question, is a white, British author the one making the attempt?

One possible beginning of an answer is that there has always been a strain of counter-historical thinking—and specifically, of utopian counter-historical thinking—in Spufford’s writing. His previous novel, Light Perpetual, imagined that a particularly horrific Blitz bombing had never occurred, and followed the lives of five children who did not, in the novel’s history, die in the blast over the course of the twentieth century. Before that, he published Golden Hill, which posited a secret history in which abolitionist groups attempt a mass liberation of slaves under color of law. His most famous work, the non-fiction novel Red Plenty, offered a tantalizing glimpse of a world where the Soviet planned economy could produce a viable alternative to free market capitalism, even as it documented how corruption and mindless bureaucracy smothered that dream. But, even leaving aside that Cahokia Jazz is a more sustained, more expansive project than any of these works, this observation doesn’t really tell us what all this utopianism is for. What are these novels doing, beyond asking “what if things had been better?”

We’ll put a pin in that question for the moment, turn away from the “why” of this novel and get back to the “how”. Which is, to be clear, extremely impressive. An obvious point of comparison for Cahokia Jazz is Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which like it posits an ethnic enclave plopped down onto modern America, and situates a noir mystery within it. But if my main complaint about Yiddish Policemen was the way that it trapped 1940s European Jewish culture in amber, refusing to imagine how either it, or the America around it, would be changed by this novel situation, Cahokia Jazz seems to have been designed from the ground up on the assumption that this is impossible. As Barrow hears in a lecture about the city’s history

“there is little in Cahokia that has not been molded and blended by long contact, first with Catholic Europe, then with the myriad of displaced peoples forced west by the expansion of the United States and forming so much, in the end, of the human material for this Mississippian fusion. Yet against all this must be placed the inestimable advantage that Cahokia thrives; that Cahokia is not dying, but a living culture. A living culture lives. Of necessity therefore it changes, grows and adapts as its habitat encourages or even requires those changes. In such circumstances, syncretism is not a defect, is not an impurity. It is an inarguable sign of evolutionary success.”[2]

Much of the history that Barrow learns over the course of the novel has to do with how this syncretism was achieved and refined. The first Europeans to arrive in Cahokia were the Jesuits, who brought with them not only smallpox resistance but Catholicism, which was blended into the local, sun-worshipping religion so that by the novel’s present, there is no disentangling them. By the time the thirteen colonies start turning their eye to the Midwest, the leadership of Cahokia has a foundation of language and scholarship with which they can insist on their right to sovereignty. Existing as a Catholic enclave within the mostly-Protestant nation around it, the city attracts to itself immigrants who have not yet been adopted into whiteness, most significantly Irish immigrants fleeing the famine, who end up forming the backbone of its military. Escaping slaves stow away on Cahokian ships sailing the Mississippi—Barrow’s taklousa landlady describes to him how her ancestor was made to work on a road gang and serve in the city’s Legion, “and he said he didn’t know sometimes whether he hadn’t just traded one state of bondage for another. But when he was done, they gave him a hundred dollars Cahokian in his hand, and the lease of thirty acres down at the south end of the state … And they said, thank you Mr. Lee.” Much of the resentment of Cahokia by the America that lies outside it is rooted in the fact that it is a place where people of color, of any stripe, can thrive and amass political power, where whiteness is no longer the only path to respectability and security. As Barrow’s Irish captain replies, when challenged by other white men who can’t believe that he isn’t siding with them:

“I’m on the side of law, and peace in the streets,” growled Doyle. “I’m on the side of the tamaha, and the holy lady in heaven who protects it. I’m on the side of my granddaddy who was treated with honor here when hoors like you were trying to starve him in Ireland, and to pick his pocket in New York City.”

The America where Cahokia endures has also been altered by its existence. Though, as the examples of Texas, California, and Hawaii noted above make clear, the American imperial experiment has not been halted in the novel’s history, it has been slowed down. There are other Native American states in the Southwest. The Mormons govern their own political entity, currently negotiating an entry into the union. The Alaska purchase never happened, and the Novaya Sibirskaya Territorii is an enclave of the Whites being pressed against by the newly-minted USSR. Cahokia’s entry into the union appears to have occurred around the time of the Civil War, and there is some indication that its presence may have staved off some of the failure of Reconstruction—or at least, so much is suggested by the appearance, in Birth of a Nation, of the famed Cahokian General Founi, whose forces ride down the KKK.

Most of these details are revealed in bits and pieces over the course of the novel, as Barrow observes things like a totem pole that commemorates the city’s Civil War dead, or visits the city’s fancy new hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright as “a kind of takata fantasy of takouma life”. Other times, we get document fragments that record, for example, the debate over whether Cahokia should take a side in the Civil War, and if so, which one. The picture that emerges is, by its nature, spotty and partial. Nevertheless, there are lacunae in the novel’s worldbuilding that feel glaring. The near-total absence of queerness—despite Barrow moving among the city’s underclasses, among jazz musicians and its aficionados, and among Couma’s bohemian set—is a bit hard to justify. The novel is quick to note the impact of Catholicism on Cahokian civil society in some respects—even in the midst of Prohibition, the city is relatively wet—but on other matters it is strangely silent. Are there Comstock laws, or Magdalene laundries, in Cahokia? Barrow learns that the takouma advocate a stark division of masculine and feminine spheres of influence, both within and outside the home, but does this mean that women in the city are free to practice family planning? We never find out.[3]

It’s obviously not possible for Spufford to have built Cahokia with absolute verisimilitude and complete detail, but what feels significant about all of these omissions is that they are sites of potential conflict within the city that could emerge organically from within it, as a natural outcome of putting a lot of people together and watching their different ideas about how they want to live clash against each other. They present a much thornier challenge to the utopian fantasy that Spufford is constructing than outside agitation by the Klan and white business interests. Early in the novel, Barrow and Drummond’s investigation leads them to a group of radicals who work in the city’s meatpacking plants, who used to agitate for Cahokian secession from the US, but who now seem more troubled by the realities of industrial labor.

“Well, look around you,” said Bessa. “Look at all of us. Cogs in a machine! Old Chunchouba was right about one thing. This is not our proper life. We are not supposed to live like this. But the solution lies in the future, not the past. We see now that there will be no liberation for the takouma without the general liberation of the laboring classes.”

Bessa identifies the elites of the city, including the house of Hashi, as part of the system that oppresses those laboring classes. But when the conflict between the KKK mob and the takouma of the city spills over into violence, he and his men are there to fight under the Hashis’ command. That’s the best possible outcome, of course, if you care about Cahokia (as readers of this novel will, by that point). But it’s part and parcel of the almost Sorkin-ian fantasy that Spufford is peddling. One where leaders are wise and always put the needs of their people first, and where the people can be brought together in a common cause. There is never a Cahokian leader who can be swayed by love of money and luxury to forget about their people’s needs. And though, at the outset of the novel, Barrow learns that the house of Hashi is precariously situated—Couma’s brother, the heir apparent, has run off to Hollywood to make movies, and she is a childless widow, further endangering the succession—this does not seem to have been a fulcrum point that outside forces have sought to exploit, and by the end of the novel the vulnerability has been decisively addressed. The city always seems to make the right choices—siding with the Union in the Civil War, welcoming Irish refugees, developing transportation technologies like riverboats and trains that make it the nation’s midwestern hub, and maintaining a collective land ownership system that has prevented capitalist interests from taking over its territory.[4]

What this means is that, for a noir novel, Cahokia Jazz is surprisingly hopeful. Most noir stories are journeys towards disillusionment—the “forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” moment when the detective realizes that there is no real justice to be had; that the rot and corruption of the system have so fully infected it that any minor righting of wrongs he might achieve will be dwarfed by the greater wrong that is the system itself. Cahokia Jazz features many of the key components of a noir mystery—crooked land deals, shady mobsters who are actually doing the bidding of respectable elites, bright young things whose glittering parties barely paper over their worldly cynicism. So when the time comes, it dutifully delivers this moment of disillusionment. But its heart doesn’t seem to be in it. The corruption it reveals is of an almost noble variety, one that in some ways even reaffirms the Hashis’ fitness to rule.[5] The novel believes too much in its setting, and has worked too hard to protect it from a world that does not believe it should exist. Barrow’s disillusionment—with Couma, but also with the city, and with the idea that he can belong to both of them—can only be a partial one.

he saw, of course he did, that the victory of the Man was infinitely preferable to the victory of Vanderberg; that the Man’s victory was an unequal one, against the odds of history, obtained with guile and carefully hoarded luck, and therefore a precious thing. But he’d seen something else, too, and couldn’t unsee it—that there was a kind of dreadful symmetry in what these powers would do, would wink at, would permit, for the sake of victory.

The idea that the powers in Cahokia are the same kind of thing as the powers outside of it—though obviously true from everything we know of the world—can’t quite cut through the love and admiration that Spufford has engendered in us for Cahokia, the disappointment we feel when we turn the last page of the book and realize that we do not live in a world where it exists, where Native Americans are not only still a political force to be reckoned with, but have managed to do liberalism better than the anyone in the real world.

(It’s for this reason, I think, that the novel never quite manages to decide what to do with Barrow, what decision he should make about where and what kind of life he should live. It recognizes that having him submit to Cahokia, despite the dark things that he has learned about it, would be too easy. But it also doesn’t want him to leave, because leaving would be an admission that this utopia might leave something to be desired. The ending it chooses, though quite dramatic, feels to me like a cheat, a choice not to decide dressed up as a grand finale.)

Which brings us back to that question I asked you to put a pin in half a review ago. What is this all for? What is the point of Cahokia? When Chabon imagined an Alaskan land of the Jews in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, he was obviously commenting on the Middle Eastern one—albeit from a perspective that rather romanticized dispossession and refugeeism. When Laurent Binet reversed the direction of transatlantic conquest and colonization in Civilizations, he did so in order to shock us with the ease with which the history and culture that we have been taught to view as important are overwritten by colonizers. If Cahokia Jazz is intended to reflect back on the world, it is only in sentimental terms. Wouldn’t it be great, the novel asks, if this were how it happened?

Well, yes, but perhaps we should be clearer on what “this” actually means. One descriptor that I haven’t yet attached to Spufford, on top of “white” and “British”, is “Christian”. As well as his novels, he has written work of Christian apologia. Which raises the question of whether the Catholic presence in Cahokia is a means of achieving certain things that would make it easier for the city to survive, or whether it is an end in itself. Again and again throughout Cahokian history we see how Catholicism saves the city, offers it handholds of solidarity against the unforgiving edifice of whiteness and capitalism, helps to solidify its people’s resistance to outsiders and support of one another. Kroeber, in his lecture, suggests that the impact of the Jesuits runs even deeper, into the city’s very idea of itself: “arriving here eighty years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, [they] brought with them the memory of the Aztecs. And fixed it here, in purged and Catholicized form, as a kind of image of what civilizational greatness in the New World might be…” The central question of the novel might not be “what if Native American sovereignty endured?” but “what if Catholicism was a force for good?”

To be fair, Spufford does not suggest that there has been, in his alternate history, some fundamental shift in the nature of an entire religious sect. When the Man’s brother, the Cahokian cardinal, returns from the election of the new pope, he offers only the faint praise that he is not as racist as his predecessors. The plot against Native sovereignty is assisted by a newly-invested white bishop who is scandalized by both the city’s racial politics and the local church’s incorporation of Native American symbolism and mysticism into its ceremonies. But for all that, when the novel discusses colonialism and native genocide, it tends to associate them purely with Protestantism, which requires some significant blinders. The conquest of South America was carried out almost entirely by Catholic countries, and syncretism between Catholicism and local beliefs occurred frequently in that part of the world, without providing the native populations with anything like a bulwark against the destruction of their culture and political power.[6] And we know, from the example of that continent, as well as Ireland, what countries where the political power of the Catholic church has persisted into the modern era look like; they are hardly bastions of liberalism and racial equality. One might say to this “yes, but what if in another part of the world things shook out differently?” But then my response would have to be “well, what if they did?” and we would end up back with our original question.

And perhaps the answer is that there is no answer. That Cahokia Jazz is purely an exercise—a thrilling, propulsive, compulsively readable one—in imagining a world that is different, one where the powerless have power, and where the powerful use their power for good. Perhaps, like his previous novels, it represents Spufford’s utopian impulses combined with his genuine love of history and facility for worldbuilding, all qualities that are worth celebrating. It is no small matter to have written a hardboiled mystery that is also a utopia, and to remain true to the essence of both. But for all that, Cahokia Jazz still feels to me like less than the sum of its parts. When you turn the last page, you regret that the history it imagines didn’t come to pass, but the sentimentalism, the impossible perfection, of that history makes that regret a hazy one. There isn’t the bitterness here that one feels at the end of Red Plenty, at the thought of a better world that could have been in our grasp, if only people had been better; or the sadness that colors Golden Hill, when you realize how partial and limited a victory even its audacious and incredibly dangerous heist can achieve. This is a novel that is a world unto itself, one that it is an absolute delight to explore. But it is also a world with little to reflect back on our own, and little for us to take back with us when we emerge from it.


[1] Cahokia practices uncle-to-nephew inheritance, so on top of a leadership position it is also Couma’s task to produce an heir to the throne.

[2] The speaker here is Alfred Kroeber, who in real history was a famed early scholar of Native American culture, and the father of Ursula K. Le Guin, to whom the novel is dedicated. This is one of several tips of the hat the novel makes to other science fiction writers—I also spotted references to Kim Stanley Robinson and Felix Gilman.

[3] On a personal note, I was struck by the absence of a Jewish community. My ancestors on my mother’s side fled Russian pogroms and conscription at the turn of the twentieth century, ending up in St. Louis, which in the novel’s setting is a sleepy village. It stands to reason that their counterparts would have arrived in Cahokia, but if they did, they don’t rate a mention.

[4] Compare this, for example, to the powerful scene in Nisi Shawl’s Everfair in which the titular nation, founded by freed slaves and Africans escaping colonization, decides to side with Germany in WWI, because the other side includes Belgium, which has recently committed unspeakable horrors in the Congo. This kind of complex political triangulation, of historical mistakes rooted in thoroughly understandable motivations, is completely absent from Cahokia Jazz.

[5] Think Deep Space Nine‘s “In the Pale Moonlight”.

[6] In his afterword, Spufford offers the Jesuit missions to the Guaraní as an example where the power of the Catholic church was used to stave off the full impact of colonialism and slavery. But, leaving aside the question of whether this was indeed a benign intervention in Native life, the fact remains that these missions failed to establish an independent Native power. When the Jesuits were expelled from South America, the autonomous regions they protected crumbled.

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