Friday, October 19, 2012

Sherman Alexie, Indian Giver

Sherman Alexie, Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories

Writers usually publish “New and Selected” collections when engineering how audiences remember them after they die. Which seems early for Sherman Alexie. Only forty-six, he hasn’t been on the national stage for twenty years yet, which is lightning speed in today’s glacial literary publishing. He has an output other writers can only envy, not only because he’s prolific, but because he adapts to multiple genres with grace and apparent ease.

Looking back, I’m surprised how few short story collections Alexie has actually put out. Perhaps because he has become such a force in literature, his works picked over not just by literary critics but by writers eager to unlock his style, his short stories seem more ubiquitous than their real numbers. For a man so associated with the most exciting developments in modern short fiction, he’s really more of a poet. (His novels, though good, are also few.)

This collection allows us to see the development of themes over the course of two decades. If The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven blurred the line between novel and short fiction, and ongoing critical opinion says it does, Blasphemy blurs the role that covers play in a book. Themes, actions, and narrative arcs which Alexie began in that first collection prove to play out in new and exciting ways long after we closed the back cover of that book.

Alexie’s stories range from less than one page, to over fifty, some rich in dialog and action, others wrapped in a protagonist’s head. Some burn with anger and passion, driven by characters who keep laser focus on their goals. Others meander alongside characters who have lost sight of their own lives, their slow, somber narration reflecting the sadness that permeates lives lived on society’s margins. His stories can feel fast or slow without ever bogging down.

If I had to compress Alexie’s main themes into one word, I would pick “outsidership.” His protagonists, primarily but not exclusively Spokane Indians like himself, stand on the outside of whatever situation, observing the inbred self-seeking that characterizes society’s mainstream. Characters like Seattle’s oldest playground basketball champion or the only rich Indian at a table of poor fundamentalists give Alexie a powerful perspective on banal situations.

This perspective allows Alexie to include sudden caustic humor. I’ve noticed this in a lot of writing by minority authors: they are often the funniest workers in the business. And as is often the case, humor gives him a chance to explain less-than-obvious truths. When that rich Indian explains why “Jesus was a fag,” I may not agree with his conclusion, but his logic about Jesus’ actions reveals why the message has persevered for centuries.

These wave-like narratives resist easy analysis, urging us instead to bask in the experience. Reading Alexie’s stories resembles getting lost in a strange city: we think we know what awaits around the next corner, but we’re entirely wrong. Even his Indian themes defy easy white expectations, grounded in Desert Southwest exoticism. After twenty years in the field, Alexie retains the ability to make audiences uncomfortable with his frank, off-kilter observations.

Alexie writes with a level of intimacy that suggests at times he works in journalism rather than fiction. Sometimes we can’t tell how much of Alexie himself appears in his characters. He has written about once reducing a woman to tears at a reading, with a story about a father’s tragic death. He claims he had to explain that his father was sitting right next to her. (But he wrote about it, so... Aaah! It’s getting very “meta” in here!)

Who could blame anyone for such confusion? One story features a writer protagonist, who, in his internal monologue, says he wants to write about his situation, but will have to change identifying details. This indistinct boundary between artist and art doesn’t just engage the reader It also quietly satirizes the literary industry’s naive lionization of “realism.” After twenty years, Alexie has become a veritable brand name, and it’s a joy to watch him subvert that prestige.

It would be a mistake to suggest Alexie speaks for all Indians, much less all minorities. But he certainly represents a certain kind of Indian, the educated and insightful man who speaks the language of insidership, but does not live the life. In prior eras he might have been the court jester or royal vizier; today he’s an author. We have always needed truth-speakers like Sherman Alexie, and this collection provides a good capsule summary of his truths.

No comments:

Post a Comment