Native Son

Sherman Alexie reaps an inheritance of irony from Indian country

Sherman Alexie
Ten Little Indians
Grove/Atlantic

Sherman Alexie has never been one to view the world in terms of red and white. The 36-year-old member of the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribe, who grew up on a reservation in eastern Washington, has coined the phrase, "the business of fancydancing" to suggest what happens along the racial dividing line between Indian and mainstream America. It's the title of his first published book of poems, and (although an entirely different work) the name of the first movie he wrote and directed. It's also a moniker that would fit well on the cover of his career manual, should he ever decide to write one.

Alexie knows that regard for his work will almost inevitably be saddled with the bullshit of identity politics, too easily dismissed as a racial token or exalted as a romantic talisman of Native culture. In response, he and his protagonists have become increasingly adept at trading on and subverting those stereotypes.

Sherman Alexie is irreverent enough to write about a father using a sex toy to conduct a healing ceremony for his hospital-ridden son.
Rob Casey
Sherman Alexie is irreverent enough to write about a father using a sex toy to conduct a healing ceremony for his hospital-ridden son.

The author's latest collection of short stories is titled Ten Little Indians, from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme. (Since the book comprises nine pieces, each with a lead character from the Spokane tribe, it figures that Alexie himself stands in as the tenth Indian.) Its pervasive theme, well leavened with humor and irony, is how resiliently proud people try to reconcile centuries of prejudice with their cluttered ambitions of assimilation.

In "Lawyer's League," a half-black, half-Spokane aide to a Chinese-American governor doesn't act on a love-at-first-sight relationship with a white woman because it might jeopardize his future prospects for public office. Yet he ends up torpedoing his career anyway by assaulting a racist opponent during a pickup basketball game. "Flight Patterns" concerns a middle-management peddler of "ideas to improve other ideas," a frequent flyer who sets his snooze alarm to the country music station. A dogged drone on the corporate treadmill, he is both aggravated by the heightened attention his brown skin receives at airport checkpoints post-9/11, and appreciative of the added veneer of security created by the hassling of similarly "suspicious" fellow travelers.

Alexie writes with a wry vigor that makes these and the other stories in Ten Little Indians feel much less pedantic than their plot synopses might suggest. Although he is also a poet, novelist, and screenwriter, short stories have generally been the most empathetic forum for his thematic breadth and casual profundity. His "big novel," Indian Killer (1996), was criticized for excessive animus toward whites (by whites, of course). But its real sin was mediocrity--it was a quasi-murder mystery that couldn't sustain its grip. Likewise, the plainspoken vocabulary and pithy turns of phrase that make his short stories accessible and sharp feel comparatively slight when one comes across them in poetic form.

But these projects have probably contributed to the maturity of Ten Little Indians, Alexie's boldest and most tonally confident work to date. The short stories are longer and more episodic than those in his earlier collections (no doubt aided by his screenwriting experience), but also more cohesive and resonant. The sardonic, suffer-no-fools attitude of the lead character in "Search Engine" at first seems unremarkable as she listens in on a clumsy seduction scene in a coffee shop. But that preamble enriches our appreciation of the story's central encounter, when this precocious college student, struggling for a life beyond the loving arms of her reservation, tracks down a washed-up poet who has come to uneasy terms with being abandoned by his mother and adopted by a white family.

Elsewhere, Alexie indulges his irreverence and imagination without sacrificing credibility. The despondent father of "Do Not Go Gentle" impulsively wields a recently purchased sex toy to conduct a healing ceremony for his son and other critically ill children in a hospital ward--a moment that may cause you to laugh and give you goosebumps at the same time. And when a white man comes to the aid of a Spokane woman after a terrorist attack in a restaurant, the sexual tension between them feels both outlandish and true to life. So does her linkage of her abusive husband with the victims of 9/11 (some of whom probably deserved to die, she figures), which conflates an emotional purge with the need to rationalize an otherwise unthinkable horror.

Because depictions of Indian culture are so often freighted in spiritual claptrap (ancient wisdom for the New Age), it is tempting to say that Alexie is refreshing because he writes as if nothing is sacred. Indeed, he can skewer political correctness by equating life on the rez with poor, white-trash neighborhoods in a pitiless paragraph. But he is also capable of wearing his heart on his sleeve while unpacking the hoariest "drunken Indian" stereotype. That happens in "What You Pawn I Shall Redeem," a tale about a homeless man who relies on the kindness of others to buy the pow-wow regalia he discovers in a pawnshop that were stolen from his grandmother 50 years ago. The story ends with the man dancing out in the street with the ghost of his grandmother inside the regalia in his arms.

But as Alexie pointed out in an interview with the online version of The New Yorker, the magazine where the story first appeared, "He's still homeless. I mean, he's got the regalia, but what the hell is he going to do with it?" By asking and answering such questions throughout Ten Little Indians, Alexie suggests that the business of fancydancing will continue to be a brisk trade.

 
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