War Dances

Pasatiempo - - In other Words - by Sher­man Alexie, Grove Press, 209 pages — Jill Batt­son

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.

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