I’ve been wanting to try Sherman Alexie’s work for some time, mostly on Eva’s strong recommendation. I had originally thought I would try one of his novels first, but when I got to the library, this collection of interlinked short stories was what they had available, so it’s what I picked up. Those of you who have read more than one of his books can tell me what you think.
These stories all take place in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. Several of the same characters come and go, including Victor Joseph, embittered by his childhood experiences on the reservation; Thomas Builds-the-Fire, an unpopular storyteller; and Norma Many Horses, a woman whose gift it is to maintain traditions. The stories are linked thematically, too, most of them having to do with the uneasy place of the Indian in the modern white world. There’s a big drop-off, for Alexie, between expectation and reality. I don’t think there is a single story, for instance, that doesn’t have at least one alcoholic in it. The stories drip with alcohol and its effects, from car accidents to fetal alcohol syndrome to general depression. As Alexie says in the introduction, “When I write about the destructive effects of alcohol on Indians, I am not writing out of a literary stance or a colonized mind’s need to reinforce stereotypes. I am writing autobiography.”
Most of the stories also have examples of racism, even when that isn’t the central point of the story. In a small side incident in “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” James Many Horses and his wife Norma are pulled over by a cop, who threatens to report them for drunk driving unless they pay him a “fine” in cash. Since the pair know that a judge will easily believe a drunk-Indian story, they fork over the money.
But racism is not the heart of that story. It’s about a man who has been using humor to deflect pain for so long that he can’t stop, even when he’s diagnosed with malignant tumors the size of baseballs. His wife leaves him because he can’t stop joking long enough to accept that some things aren’t funny, long enough to die with dignity. Racism is only one of the things he jokes away, one of the parts of his pain.
And humor — dark, dry humor — is probably what unites these stories more than anything else. The stories were a bit hit-or-miss for me, some of them poetic, experimental, edgy, and touching (“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” “Distances,” and “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” are good examples of these) and others choppy and predictable. But all of them had a fierce humor. Laughing past the liquor store, as it were. I am certainly looking forward to trying more of his work.
Note: I will say that reading these was a little disconcerting because I live in Spokane. He kept mentioning landmarks, but from a perspective I know nothing about (like the way all Indians know that someone is buried up in Manito Park!) That was something I loved.