I should preface this book with a personal explanation. The best way to approach Sherman Alexie is to look into your own personal history regarding American Indians. For me, I grew up with the vague notion that Indians didn’t exist anymore. I think a lot of kids that don’t live near large Native American populations suffer from this perception. I mean, where in popular culture do you ever come across a modern day Indian? There was that movie “Smoke Signals” (based on one of the stories in this book) and possibly the television show “Northern Exposure” but that is it, ladies and gentlemen. In my own life, realization hit when I started Junior High and read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for the very first time. If you’ve read the book then you know that it dwells on the character “Chief” and his past. I read about him and found out that I knew diddly over squat about Native Americans. They show “Dances With Wolves” in high school homeroom and through that you’re supposed to infer contemporary Indian culture? That’s like watching “Gone With the Wind” and wondering where all the happy slaves are today. It doesn’t make sense. This is why I’m nominating, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight In Heaven” as the book that should be required in every Junior High and High School in the country immediately. We’ve all read our “Catcher In the Rye” and “Scarlet Letter”. Now let’s read something real.
The book is a collection of short stories, all containing repeating characters and events. There is no single plot to the story and while the character of Victor is probably the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, he hardly hogs the spotlight for very long. In this book we witness a single Spokane Reservation. We watch personal triumphs and repeated failures and mistakes. Author Alexie draws on history, tradition, and contemporary realism to convey the current state of the American Indian. You’ll learn more than you thought to.
My favorite chapter in this book, bar none, is “A Good Story”. In it, a character’s mother mentions that her son’s stories are always kind of depressing. By this point the reader is more than halfway through the book and has probably thought the same thing (deny it though they might). In response, Junior tells a story that isn’t depressing. Just thoughtful and interesting. It’s as if Alexie himself has conceded briefly that, no, the stories in this book aren’t of the cheery happy-go-lucky nature the reader might be looking for. That’s probably because the stories are desperately real and fantastical all at once. To be honest, I feel a bit inadequate reviewing this book. It’s obvious that Alexie is probably the greatest writer of his generation. Hence, these stories are infinitely readable and distressing.
This is a good book. This is the book to read when you ask yourself, “What author haven’t I ever read before?”. This is the book you will find yourself poring over on subways, buses, and taxi cabs. You’ll leave it on park benches and run twenty blocks north to retrieve it again. I don’t know how many other ways I can say that it’s a good book. Well worth reading. Funny and taxing all at once. Sherman Alexie deserves greater praise than any I can give him. All I can say then is that this book is beautiful. Read this book.
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I initially picked this book up for two reasons–I liked Alexie’s novel, Indian Killer, and more importantly because I live in Spokane, WA and have traveled extensively through the Reservations and towns that are described in the stories. The descriptions and the characters are very realistic, the names and places are not very fictionalized, and it makes me feel right at home. Fortunately for those readers not privleged to live in the Inland Northwest, the stories also teach a lot about Indian culture, the modern Native American and their heritage. It is a disturbing picture at times with too much alcaholism, violence, and racism, but underneath it all there is a great deal of love which makes the stories comforting and redeeming. Alexie has a lyrical voice, and when combined with his authenticsity, beautiful, rich stories are produced. Aside from those academic traits, he is also very funny, honest, and affectionate throughout, and those qualities are what I will remember about this book far more than the descriptions of familiar hotels on Third Avenue and the basketball games played between Springdale and Wellpinit. It is a great, quick read, and a wonderful way to pass an afternoon.
This is my personal measure of Sherman Alexie, the gifted young Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian writer: He caught my attention in a recently rebroadcast “60 Minutes” feature story. What appealed to me was his sardonic wit–edgy, thoughtful, ironic, challenging, and, yes, I thought, a bit sad. I told myself, Let’s see if he can really write, let’s see what he’s got to say. So I pick up one of his books of prose; within a week, I had read three.
This outstanding collection of interrelated stories was the first. Very, very impressive! I loved his writing, his crisp, bone simple and straight style. I felt for his finely etched characters, a handful of them–especially one named Victor, presumably the author’s stand-in–recurring throughout. And these are all stories with bite.
“Maybe hunger informs our lives,” says the narrating voice of “Family Portrait.” Roughly the first half of this book exposes us to what it means to be “Native American” today: The spoils of defeat–the tight-lipped, self-destructive despair of a once proud, historic people reduced to segregated conditions. Isolated from the white world, isolated from their own traditions. Subject to poor housing, education and food, chronic unemployment, rampant alcoholism, diabetes, blood fights and bloody ends.
Alexie’s sharp depictions of conflicted identity, uncertainty in the everyday and lifelong struggles for survival on the Spokane Indian reservation, the contradictory capacities for tenderness and tragedy, beauty and brutality, breaks down our detachment, jars us into realizing both the unique and common human attributes of his people. What he induces is simply called “empathy.” As another who grew up in a “reservation”–”the urban ghetto”–I felt that same incoherent rage that plagues so many of his characters. In the commonweal of pain, it was a further demonstration that “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” Yeah, okay–”empathy.”
At the halfway point, I was ready to start writing this review–no question, Alexie had shown he had the literary goods and I wanted to proclaim it–but something told me, first finish the book. Good thing. Why? Because he tricked me–he still held an ace up his storytelling sleeve.
“Hope feeds among the tombs,” Melville wrote. “Always darkest before the daylight,” goes the tireless adage we’ve all heard somewhere from our elders. “That’s how I do this life sometimes by making the ordinary just like magic,” says the narrator in one of Alexie’s stories (“Jesus Christ’s Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation”). “Every Indian learns how to be a magician and learns how to misdirect attention and the dark hand is always quicker than the white eye . . . no matter how close you get to my heart you will never find out my secrets and I’ll never tell you and I’ll never show you the same trick twice.”
Might be Alexie begins his sleight of hand with the (deliberately) Kafka-esque tale of the trial of Thomas Builds-the-fire, “misfit storyteller” who can still feel the pulse of tradition within him and stubbornly refuses to disown it. (Hmm. Defiance.) Then there’s “A Good Story,” about the loving, mutually respectful relationship between an old man and a boy. Or the story about the Indian married couple who reconcile after the wife has left her wise-cracking husband for making one joke too many about his terminal cancer. (Hmm. Redemption!) Or the character arc of Victor–whose name, keep in mind, means “conqueror”–over an array of first and third person narratives, as he struggles against the pull of his parents’ drunken, broken marriage; resenting his father’s departure; the low expectations of Indian schooling; the high expectations of being a local hero; incipient alcoholism; the fear of and yearning for love. The Alexie magic is in balancing the bitter with the sweet; showing us that in the midst of desolation there is also room for resilience, for humor, for trust–for hope.
It was during this time I happened to see a repeat of Chris Rock’s last HBO special, the one where he advises those folks who’re always popping off in the media about how bad their people have it now in this country–how they’re “losing America”–to just shut up. “Nobody has it worse than the Indians,” he says. “They’re all dead!”
No, not quite, Chris. Deliberately wounded by long-standing government policy, yes. Demonized and ignored by a “dominant” history, yes. Suffering, yes. But they still survive, human as the rest of us–with faults, foibles, and feelings, nightmares and dreams–and they’re championed by one of their own, a writer with a singular voice who tells modern day Indian stories with clarity, style, perception and wit. This book opens a door…