This is an outstanding collection of stories by a masterful, and very important, storyteller. Sherman Alexie first came to my attention with his powerful story “War Dances”, which originally appeared in The New Yorker and was reprinted in 2011’s edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading (my pick for the most rewarding of all the Best American anthologies). “War Dances” is a compelling story of father and sons, of betrayal and love, told with plentiful dark humor and copious sadness. Oh and it’s also—tengentially but critically—about being an Indian in early 21st century America, because that’s what Alexie is, too.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Alexie is not a “great Indian writer” or a “great Spokane Indian writer” or whatever. Alexie is a kickass writer, period, and the depth and emotional power of his stories stems from his ablity to put words on the page in compelling and effective ways. Yes, he is a Spokane Indian, and yes, most if not all of his stories are informed by that experience to one degree or another. His characters tend to be Indians, especially his first-person narrators, who tend also to be male, hilariously funny, self-deprecating, and either furious or depairing—or most often, both.
But the Indianness of Alexie’s characters, and of Alexie hinself, should not be taken as the defining factor, much less defining limitation, of these strories. Would anyone characterize E.L. Doctorow or Joyce Carol Oates as “great white writers”? Let’s hope not.
So then. What we have here is a collection of stories culled from the span of Alexie’s 20-odd year publishing career, with selections ranging from his very first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, to the aforementioned “War Dances”, published just last year. For anyone who needs an introduction to this important writer’s work, there is no better place to start.
Two things jump out at the reader making his/her way through this anthology: the recurring nature of certain themes, and the wide variation in style. Stories range from super-short, one- or two-page slaps like “Idolatry” and “Breakfast” to the 50-plus pages of “The Search Engine” and “Whatever Happened to Frank Snake Church?”—stories that are so loaded with incident and character that another author might have chosen to expand them into novels. The sudden fiction pieces act like fables, short sharp shocks that make a pithy point and move along, while the longer stories encompass a range of emotional response, usually including humor, sorrow, exasperation and some degree of heartbreak.
Romance crops up quite a lot too, as in “The Approxiate Size of My Favorite Tumor”, the story of two Indian lovers struggling to to maintain their sense of humor in the face of a battle with cancer, or in “Indian Country”, in which an Indian man struggles with his feelings toward a white woman, who is herself in love with an Indian woman. Alexie’s protagonists tend to be male, but there are notable exceptions, such as Mary Lynn in “Assimilation”, a woman struggling to be faithful to her decent but unexciting husband. The nameless female narrator in “Scenes from a Life” struggles with a hidden secret that is revealed only in the final moments of the story, but which echoes across all the events previously described.
When not parsing romances both intra- and cross-cultural, Alexie turns his insightful eye toward family relationships, most often between parents and children, more specificlly fathers and sons. “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” is a far more heartbreaking story than its too-clever title might suggest, concerning a young boy who tries to connect with his unhappy father, while “Emigration”, “Scars” and “Breakfast” all touch on related parent-child themes. The fact that most of these families are Indians adds a layer of complexity to the telling—being a hard-drinking Spokane on the rez carries a different resonance than being a hard-drinking commodities broker on Wall Street—but the common experiences of children and parents, of wisecracking lovers and estranged spouses, is just as important as the cultural backdrop, if not more so.
Throughout it all, Alexie has ample opportunity to display his easy way with a memorable one-liner, with a sharp observation or sly comment. In “Because My Father Always Said…” we are told that “On a reservation, Indian men who abandon their children are treated worse than white fathers who do the same thing. It’s because white men have been doing that forever and Indian men have just learned how. That’s how assimilation can work.”
“Indian Country” contains a conversation in which one character, seeking clarification about another Indian character, asks whether she is “Indian-dot-in-the-head or Indian-arrow-in-the-heart?” Meanwhile, the narrator of “Indian Education” reminds us grimly that “Sharing dark skin doesn’t necessarily make two men brothers.” Given the nature of the story, this is a lesson we are unlikely to forget.
There are far too many such punchy and memorable moments to list here, and taking them out of context only dilutes their impact. Suffice it to say that anyone with an interest in the current state of American writing should read this book. I would go so far as to say that any such person needs to read this book. Sure, there are some criticisms one could level: there’s a little too much basketball for my taste, and the dominant emotional tone, one of mixed humor and resignation, gets played out a bit too often. But these are minor quibbles.
There is much, much more good than bad here, and—this is the important part—the good is being done in a unique and thoroughly entertaining way. Sherman Alexie is a writer unlike any other working today, and that alone is reason enough to pay attention to what he is doing.