April 12, 1993 12:00 PM

by Thomas King

There are times for taking literary superhighways, zipping through page-turners toward your destination, and there are times for meandering along the back roads, slopping to admire the view. Green Grass takes the scenic route as author King, chairman of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and himself part-Cherokee, spins a magical yarn with its roots in the earth and its branches brushing the stars.

This wide-ranging novel. King’s second, centers on an oddball clan of Canadian Blackfoot. There’s Charlie and his cousin Lionel, both in love with Alberta, who’s more interested in having a baby than a husband. There’s Charlie’s father, who could have been a Hollywood star if only his nose had looked more “Indian.” There’s Lionel’s sister, Latisha, who turns her struggling café into a tourist mecca by claiming to serve dog meat—her “houndburgers” are really plain beef. And let’s not forget Uncle Eli, whose cabin is blocking a huge government dam. But lurking just beyond the periphery of their lives, ready to overturn their best-laid plans, are mythic figures such as Coyote, the perennial trickster, and the Lone Ranger.

Although these archetypes, who pop up in various guises with the regularity of a ceremonial drum, help give the ambitious novel some of its historical resonance, the main story is engaging enough that you frequently resent the intrusion. At once plainspoken and poetic, King is equally at home with his vivid, often comic characters and with the vibrant natural world in which their dramas are played out. (Houghton Mifflin, $21.95)

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