If You Think It, You Gotta Say It
Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.
He walked into The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina on a warm June night to a packed house, great acclaim, and even greater anticipation—the audience clearly had come to be entertained by the hottest “Indian” in the country, the bestselling author Sherman Alexie. He would not disappoint them. Alexie strode to the lectern wearing a white, embroidered shirt hanging loosely over his dark jeans, his long hair shorn in favor of a close cut. If we’d been expecting the Victor Joseph of Smoke Signals, the “warrior” with the stoic look who believes that an Indian man “ain’t anything without his hair,” then we were in for a rude shock. That was only the beginning of a raucous, fascinating, and fractious evening with the author of Ten Little Indians, his latest collection of stories and the best writing he’s done since the critically acclaimed The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
After complaining that he wasn’t feeling all that well because of a bad sauce he’d had for dinner at a local restaurant, Alexie launched in to his reading, gradually gathering pace and energy, his voice rising and falling as he gauged the content of the story. He read from “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks About,” a quasi coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1976 and rife with the subjects on which Alexie has built his intimidating, in-your-face reputation: Caucasian women who want to hook into the Native American spiritual pipeline, definitions of the term “Indian,” the best and worst traits of an Indian man, and the trouble with white people in general.
The story’s opening sentence sets the tone for the vast majority of the sharp, funny, and keenly written stories in this collection: “During the summer of 1976, the city of Seattle was beginning to change from the barbarous seaport of loggers, sailors, and Indians it had always been into the progressive, computerized, sanitized capital of all things Caucasian it would become.” From this opening it’s hard to tell for which city Alexie has more contempt, but he makes it pretty clear throughout these stories that he is an “Indian” and not a Native American (a politically correct term he believes white people use when they are feeling especially guilty about what their ancestors have done.) He has made his living as both a writer and now a standup comic on his willingness to say out loud what he seems to know people are thinking, and these stories literally bleed with such irreverent pronouncements. As one of his characters says, “That’s the problem. No one wants to hear these things, but I’m thinking them, and I have to say them.” Alexie is utterly fearless in his convictions, and he doesn’t seem to care whether people like what he has to say or not-that level of fearlessness allows him to write what he wants, and to do so with mixed results. In this collection, however, he’s right on target.
After he finished his reading of the story (or should I say his “performance,” for that is precisely what it was), Alexie opened it up for questions. But this was not going to be a standard Q&A; rather, a few brave souls did manage to squeeze in a question or two in between the long, disjointed, and rapacious riffing he did on everything from vegans (for whom he seems to have a genuinely unaffected scorn) to George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and politics in general. By his own admission (he told me this in a shot-gun blast of an interview he squeezed in with me over the phone from his home in Seattle), his readings have become stages from which he can practice his stand-up routine. He sees no difference between “Sherman Alexie the writer” and “Sherman Alexie the comic,” so he feels no compunction to present a traditional reading (he seems to hate the abject limitations such a setup places on him anyway.) Besides, he told me, “I’m really funny.” Judging by the sidesplitting reaction of all of us in the audience at the bookstore that night, he’s right.
What about the rest of the stories in this collection, though? By his own admission, Alexie believes that there are some really outstanding stories in it, several “very good ones,” and a couple of stinkers. Again, I’d say he’s right on target with his assessment. In the more limited stories, he loses his focus and his edge as he wanders from character to character and plot line to plot line with little sense of direction. In the best of them, though, he writes with the same energy with which he reads—lightning fast—as he moves seamlessly from point to point in a tightly structured narrative. In these stories, we follow with him as takes us inside the minds of his characters, something he does to great effect in “Can I Get a Witness?” Here we find a 50-year-old Spokane Indian woman sitting in a restaurant waiting for the waiter to bring back her credit card and whose world is suddenly torn apart in the splintering wreckage of a suicide bombing. In his matter-of-fact tone, the narrator then tells us, “It was a highly effective and economical suicide bombing. The bomber had spent only $436 to make his bomb, so it had cost him a little over ten dollars a head”. Shocking? Far from it. Echoes of September 11? Perhaps. Or is it just Alexie telling us what we don’t want to hear in cold, clinical, dispassionate terms?
The best of the stories, and the one for which Alexie admitted at least some personal resonance, is the very last one in the collection, “What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” The protagonist of the title is a 39-year-old, over-the-hill former high school basketball star turned forest ranger. There was a time when he wasn’t so fat and out of shape, however. As a high school senior, he was a “truly supernatural baller, the kind of jumper and runner who ignored physics when he played.” Add to this talent the fact that Frank is a “genetic freak at six-feet-six (making him the seventeenth tallest Spokane Indian in tribal history.)” He has over a hundred college scholarship offers and seems set to hit the big time—and then his mother dies. “To honor her and keep her memory sacred, Frank knew he had to give up something valuable. He had to bury with her one of his most important treasures. So he buried his basketball dreams.” The story returns to the present where Frank quits his job as a forest ranger, takes the considerable savings he’s accrued over the years from the job (that’s some serious saving, I suppose, given the pay of government workers in the field,) and decides he’s going to get back in to shape and rediscover his once prodigious skills as a hoopster.
The genesis for this story comes from a similar time in Alexie’s life at age 38 or so when he was woefully out of shape (he is a pretty good player in his own right) and decided to hire a personal trainer to see if he could get back into the kind of condition he used to be in when he was younger. He constructed the story from there. It is a wonderfully resonant one, filled with some attention to cultural issues that Alexie doesn’t always allow himself to explore in a serious tone. He also examines powerfully the human fears of getting old, of dying before our time, and the age-old desire we all seem to have of trying to rekindle our lost youth. The ending to this tale is not what you might expect, but that is pure Alexie.
As he sat at the table in the bookstore signing his books for an eager and clearly impressed audience, I got the sense that he didn’t care all that much about us or about the reading. Instead, his head seemed already to be back in Seattle, back on the West coast where he is more comfortable, writing what he knows we are thinking and practicing his stand-up routine at open mike nights in the city. But, if you get a chance to catch Alexie’s act somewhere on the road, don’t miss it—he’s sure not to disappoint you.