There’s always a sense of anticipation when a new Sherman Alexie book hits the stores. First there’s the candylike cover beckoning like a sweet treat, and then, when it’s in your hands, a fluttering in the stomach as you anticipate the belly-rolling chortles that come with the kind of straight-ahead (some might say “politically incorrect”) writing that fills Alexie’s books, whether poetry or prose.
War Dances doesn’t disappoint. This collection of short stories, punctuated throughout with poems, delivers a plugged-in, savvy view of ordinary, contemporary lives, without ever letting the reader forget Alexie’s heritage as a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian.
There might be a tiny bit of guilt on the reader’s behalf for snorting at passages like this: “True or False?: when a reservation raised Native American dies of alcoholism it should be considered death by natural causes,” or sniggering along with Alexie as he plays the self-deprecating proxy for Native American culture. This is evident in the book’s title story, as the narrator roams the corridors of a hospital looking for another Native American to lend him a “good” blanket for his dying father. While this kind of writing may cause the reader to laugh out loud, Alexie— who has been known to appear at comedy festivals across North America— is equally at home using his pen to tickle the funny bone or pull at heartstrings.
The book’s unconventional layout serves as a jewelry box with plenty of gems to choose from— both precious and costume. In the 16-section “War Dances,” Alexie’s autobiographical voice is loud as he blends the death of the narrator’s father with the discovery that he may have a brain tumor. Alexie was born hydrocephalic. He underwent a brain operation at the age of six months and was not expected to survive. “The Senator’s Son” focuses on a hate crime and old grievances while examining intimate relationships wound up with right-wing politics. The beautiful little story “Salt” tells what happens when a young journalist has to quickly take on unexpected responsibility, and “The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless” highlights the problems with both mix tapes and marriages against a background of vintage clothes.
The poems that are scattered through the text are microcosms of the book itself. Alexie’s instructions for a burial, odes to pay phones and mix tapes, and treatises on airplane seat selection have some beautiful lines, both powerful and humorous, and do what poems are meant to do— make the reader think. In these poems, Alexie’s writing is at its best— hardly surprising, since poetry is where he first found his voice. His poetry books have won numerous awards, and Alexie held the TaosWorld Heavyweight Poetry Bout Champion title for four consecutive years. These works serve as little poetic rest stops between stories.
Just as a Pendleton Blanket makes an appearance in “War Dances,” Sherman Alexie has woven a blanket of a book, investigating loss, mortality, adultery, writers’ block, and love. It’s a quick and satisfying read worth hunkering down to on a quiet weekend.