Granta Top 20 Authors Under 40
Sherman Alexie, himself a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, writes with great wit and obvious anguish about life on the modern Indian reservation. This book, it isn't really a novel but 22 interlinked stories, depicts a life where alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, car wrecks and violence compete with history for a claim on the residents' souls and where the worst epithet is "apple", an Indian who is red on the outside but white on the inside. The cumulative impact of the stories is to create a sense of despair. It seems like the characters are unwilling to break out of a hopeless cycle of doom, defeatism and failure.
The best of the stories, "This Is What it Means to say Phoenix, Arizona", offers a glimpse at the possibility for something better. Victor, the main recurring character, has to get to Phoenix to pick up his dead father's ashes. He doesn't have enough money, but his estranged childhood friend, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, offers to chip in and go with him. Though initially reluctant, in part because of a brutal beating he administered to the obsessive storyteller Thomas as they grew older, Victor agrees and Thomas reveals that he had made a promise to Victor's father years before, that he would help Victor when the time came. During the trip the young men recapture something of the friendship that peer pressure had helped destroy, but as they part both realize that now that they have returned to the Reservation, things will return to the way they were. Thomas asks Victor for one favor, not that Victor change his abusive behavior, simply that he stop and listen to one of Thomas' stories some time. This uneasy truce between the macho victor and the more spiritual Thomas seems to be the best hope that Alexie can envision for young Indian men.
The stories are relatively free of the New Age wise Indian pabulum we see so much of and despite a few dated and silly references to things like El Salvador, overt politics doesn't intrude much. Best of all, Alexie does not make excuses for his characters. He recognizes that their dismal lives are the product of conscious choices, but that the choices are bad ones. This is the great strength of the book, his ability to judge the characters harshly, yet present them with obvious affection.
However bleak, this is a very interesting book.
-A Reservation Table of the Elements (by Alexie)
-Interview (Salon Magazine)
-Sherman Alexie Unofficial Fan Club
-ESSAY: The Violence of Hybridity in Silko and Alexie (Cyrus R. K. Patell, Journal of American Studies of Turkey)
-ESSAY: Sherman Alexie's cultural imperialism: The Native American novelist thinks Ian Frazier had no business writing "On the Rez." He may have some trespasses of his own to answer for (Jonathan Miles, Salon)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd