Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sherman Alexie's Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories

Sherman Alexie has recently published an inevitable “New and Selected Stories” collection.  It is entitled Blasphemy and contains thirty-one stories—roughly half from his previous four collections, the rest previously unpublished in book form.

The “selected” stories from his previous four collections are as follows:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven [1993]:
“This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,”
“Because My Father Always Said He was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play
 ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock,”
“The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,”
“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”
“Indian Education”

The Toughest Indian in the World [2000]
“Indian Country”
“The Toughest Indian in the World”

Ten Little Indians (2003)
“The Search Engine”
“Do You Know Where I Am?”
“What You Pawn I Will Redeem”
“What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?”

War Dances [2009]
“Breaking and Entering”
“War Dances”

One opens a new Sherman Alexie collection with the expectation of showman Sherman’s predictable barrage of satiric barbs, comic one-liners, performance posturing, polemical rants, and guilt assaults against the white man’s mistreatment of Native Americans. So it may be a pleasant surprise for readers expecting the same old adolescent Alexie to find themselves responding positively to the adult man at the center of many of Alexie’s more recent stories, for example in Ten Little Indians.  Instead of making you feel guilty for your ancestors’ exploitation of Native Americans, he may move you, even as he makes you laugh

When a man takes the credit for his future wife’s rescue of a lost cat in “Do You Know Where I Am?” and years later must cope with her infidelity, he understands that honesty is the only thing that holds two people together.

Even though a man struggles with his demons as he futilely tries to raise enough money to buy back his grandmother’s stolen regalia, he is able to dance in final celebration in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.”

In “The Search Engine,” a female college student seeks out an aging forklift operator whose one book of poetry she has accidentally discovered in the library. His story of why it is his only book, although predictable, leaves the young woman, and perhaps the reader, smiling wistfully.

"What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” is an unlikely, but irresistible parable of an aging, over-weight, ex-basketball player with a heart problem who makes an improbable but delightful comeback to kick the butt of an arrogant young point guard.

Although War Dances, a collection of poems, vignettes, and stories, won the 2010 PEN/FAULKNER Award for Fiction, to many it may seem to be something of a mix tape made up of a few full-length short stories and a lot of detritus that just happened to be lying around in Alexie’s file cabinet.

The title story, the best story in the collection, told in first-person numbered fragments alternating between the narrator’s problem with his loss of hearing and his father’s foot amputation, replays the comic Native American Alexie persona who has appeared in previous collections. When the narrator tries to get a blanket for his hospitalized father, he encounters another Native American with whom he trades Indian jokes and barbs—which seems to be the main purpose of the encounter, although he does manage to borrow a nice heavy Pendleton.

The narrator’s own ailment is a tumor on the brain, but one that his doctor tells him many people live with their whole lives with no problem. After the father dies from alcoholism, the rest of the story is made up of various narrative diversions. First, the narrator does research on his family history, reprinting his interview with a man who had served with his grandfather when he was killed in action on Okinawa during World War II. The story also includes what is termed an “exit interview,” in which Alexie, citing his father, has the opportunity to come up with more one-line jokes at the expense of both whites and Natives. The story ends with a poem about the father slicing his knee with a chain saw, followed by the father’s itemized list of contradictions to the details in the poem. It’s all a lot of Alexie cleverness and one-liners strung together loosely by the relationship between the narrator’s fear of dying and his father’s death.

One of my favorite Alexie stories is the title story of his second collection The Toughest Indian in the World, about a Native American who has left the reservation but yearns for his tribe’s mythic past.

The central event of the story begins when the narrator picks up an Indian hitchhiker and recognizes from the man’s twisted and scarred hands that he is a prizefighter.  The man tells the narrator that he goes from reservation to reservation, offering to fight the best fighter there, winner take all.  The last Indian he fought was a young man billed as the toughest Indian in the world, who refused to go down no matter how much the hitchhiker hit him.  Knowing that the kid would die before he went down, the hitchhiker sat down on the mat and let himself be counted out.

When the narrator stops at the town of Wenatchee, he invites the hitchhiker to spend the night with him.  Later in bed the hitchhiker begins to masturbate the narrator and then says he wants to be inside him.  Although the narrator says he has never done this before and insists that he is not gay, he agrees.  After they have sex, the narrator tells the hitchhiker he thinks he had better leave.

After taking a shower, doing some shadow boxing, and searching his body for changes, the narrator goes to bed, wondering if he were a warrior in this life and if he had been a warrior in a previous life.  The next morning he wakes up and starts walking barefoot away from the motel barefoot.  The story ends with his saying if someone were to break open his heart they would find “the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.”

Often an outspoken advocate for Indians (a term he prefers to “Native Americans”), Sherman Alexie explores in “The Toughest Indian in the World” a typical theme of Indian writers—the yearning of the assimilated professional to make some sort of contact with his primal native heritage.  When the narrator picks up the Indian fighter, he wants him to know that he grew up on the rez, “with every Indian in the world,” so he uses Indian slang and shares the hitchhiker’s jerky with him.  Having moved off the reservation twelve years before to work in the city as a feature writer on a newspaper, the narrator takes pleasure in driving down the road chewing on jerky, taking to an indigenous fighter, feeling “as Indian as Indian gets.”

This narrator’s admiration for the hitchhiker is further emphasized when the fighter tells the narrator about a fight with a young Indian billed as “the toughest Indian in the world,” who refused to go down no matter how many times the hitchhiker hit him.  When the narrator tells the hitchhiker he could have been a warrior in the old days both for his power as a fighter and for his honoring his opponent by sitting down and letting him win the fight, he is excited, wanting to let the fighter know how highly he thinks of him.

The narrator’s yearning to identify with the world of the warrior establishes a basis for his willingness to have sex with the hitchhiker, even though he is not homosexual.   He sees the fighter as beautiful and scarred, a true warrior. And in the world of the warrior of the old times, he senses there were no false gender boundaries.  The mythic nature of the sex act between the two men is reflected by the narrator’s saying that afterwards he smelled like salmon.  He searches his body for any changes, wondering if he is a warrior now and if he were a warrior in a previous incarnation. His inability to understand and articulate why he has sex with the hitchhiker does not suggest that he is a homosexual who is unwilling to admit it.  Rather, when he says he did it for reasons he could not explain then nor can he explain now, he suggests that he submits to the fighter for mythic rather than personal reasons.

To make the reader accept these mythic reasons for the sexual encounter, Alexie ends the story with a scene presented as reality but suggestive of dream.  The narrator says he awoke the next morning and “went out into the world,” walking barefoot upriver toward the place where he was born and will someday die.  Echoing a statement he made earlier about his father—that the old man wanted to break open the hearts of the hitchhikers he picked up and see the future in their blood—the narrator says that if you were to break open his heart at that moment, you would look inside and see the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.  This ambiguous conclusion of the story marks a final transition between the everyday, real world to the world of wish, myth, dream, in short, the fantasy world of sacred reality.

In addition to these fifteen “selected stories”, there are also fifteen “new” stories, which we may well think represents what Alexie is doing in the short story form here lately.

Not a great deal, it turns out: I offer just a line or two about each of these new, quite ordinary, pieces.

“Cry Cry Cry”—narrator tells about his cousin Junior who deals drugs and is put in jail.  It rambles on endlessly with Alexi throwing in whatever occurs to him as clever or funny or interesting, e.g. “I think jail is the only placed where you can find pay phones anymore.”  “A thousand years from now, archeologists are going to be mystified by all the toothless skulls they find buried in the ancient reservation mud.”

“Green World”—Narrator has the job of picking up dead birds killed by windmills until an old Indian plays Don Quixote with a shotgun.

“Scars”—Man has a cauliflower ear from being constantly slapped on the head by his father, until the guy kills his father and does five years for manslaughter.

“Midnight Basketball”—story about basketball as played by Obama and Big Ed, who is a basketball sociopath—terrible shooter but thinks he is great

“Idolatry”—very brief story about a woman who sings Patsy Cline song at an audition but is terrible.  Her mother has always told her she was great. Moral:  “In this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.”

“Protest”—Narrator’s friend, a pale Indian, tries to be more Indian.

“Scenes From a Life”—told by a middle-class white girl.  Has sex with an Indian boy, experiences a haboob (sandstorm) in Phoenix, works on documentaries, is married twice, has open marriage with one husband, slept with thirty-two men in her life, has a daughter, gives it up for adoption, etc etc etc etc and on and on aimlessly and endlessly.

“Breakfast”—brief parable about a guy who cooks an omelet with his father in it.

“Night People”—Rambling piece about a man who goes to a woman who works in an all –night manicure joint—more opportunities for Alexie to drop pearls of wisdom, e.g. “A manicure seemed like a public act but a pedicure felt like something private, even sexual.”  “Underrated how name tags give a man permission to briefly study a woman’s breasts.”

“Gentrification”—white guy’s black neighbors throw a horribly stained mattress onto the curb in front of their house. When he takes it off in the night, the whole block shuns him for thinking he is better than them.

“Fame”—guy gets turned down by a woman who makes balloon animals for parties.

“Faith”—guy meets a girl with a prosthetic leg at a party of fundamentalists.

“Old Growth”—guy kills a man thinking it is a deer, buries him.  Twenty-one years later he is diagnosed with cancer, digs up the body and takes the man’s skull home.

“Emigration”—very brief parable fantasy about a man whose mother possesses magic.

“The Vow”—Brief story in which a man makes his young wife promise that if he ever gets Alzheimer’s and forgets who she is, she will put him in a home. 

“”Basic Training”—a rambling, sentimental story about a father and son who run a Donkey Basketball company (they set up basketball games in which the donkeys carry the players around the basketball court). 

At this point in his career, Sherman Alexie seems to be churning out a lot of short stuff that are not necessarily good short stories, maybe just because he knows he can. I hope that is not true. The stories in The Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians are some of his best. These fifteen “new” stories are much less engaging and significant.  


Anonymous said...

I agree that when you read some of the newer stories on the page, it seems like they aren't as good. I think, however, they have more power when read aloud. I went to one of his book tour events and it was really impressive just to listen to the words.

Marlene Detierro said...

I really enjoyed this book. I have read pretty much everything that Alexie has written, so it was reading about old friends and meeting new ones. In the stories, I hear Alexie's voice, telling of his experiences, of his friends' and family's experiences, and of the experiences of all of us.

Marlene Detierro (Merchant Cash Advance)