Killing last cen­tury’s In­dian

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - Casey Sanchez The New Mex­i­can

Sher­man Alexie is com­ing to Santa Fe as part of the run-up to In­dian Mar­ket. But can we just give the “In­dian writer” la­bel a rest and re­al­ize that he is part of small global crew of artists (think movie di­rec­tor Ang Lee, nov­el­ist V.S. Naipaul, and the writ­ing staff of HBO’s The Wire) who can ef­fort­lessly move across cul­tures, free­wheel­ing through race, sex­u­al­ity, and na­tion­al­ity to cap­ture the sto­ries of peo­ple who look or sound noth­ing like them?

Of course, Alexie has done type-cast­ers a fa­vor by giv­ing his books ti­tles like In­dian Killer, Reser­va­tion Blues, The Tough­est In­dian in the World, and his Na­tional Book Award-win­ning young-adult novel, The Ab­so­lutely True Diary of a Part-Time In­dian, a 2007 ti­tle that still ranked in the top five of The New York Times best­seller list for chil­dren’s pa­per­back books as re­cently as March of this year. War Dances, his most re­cent book, bears a name that seems to add fuel to the fire un­til you con­sider that the war dance, the art of rit­u­al­ized mock com­bat in prepa­ra­tion for real bat­tle, is an an­cient tra­di­tion that prob­a­bly ev­ery cul­ture once em­braced. The book is a lit­er­ary mix­tape, string­ing to­gether po­ems, short sto­ries, mus­ings, and quasi-in­ter­views into some­thing greater than the sum of its parts. At its core the book brims with tales of peo­ple at war with their own vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and ev­ery­thing else that makes them ten­der, weak, and hu­man.

In “The Sen­a­tor’s Son,” Alexie takes us deep into the heart of young, white, priv­i­leged, clos­eted gay Repub­li­cans who en­dure beat­ings and alien­ation at the hands of their fam­ily and friends to prop up a far-right ide­ol­ogy. It is a tale filled with so much ten­der­ness and rage that it al­most makes you want to weep for the likes of Roy Cohn and Ted Hag­gard. Of course, this is Alexie, who nearly al­ways un­der­cuts tragedy with com­edy. Jeremy, a ma­cho gay right-winger who has sto­ically en­dured ho­mo­pho­bic beat­ings by his fa­ther, muses that in an­cient times, he could have got­ten away with both killing and for­giv­ing his fa­ther, in that pre­cise or­der. “A clas­si­cal Greek god would have killed his ly­ing, cheat­ing fa­ther and then given him for­give­ness. And a clas­si­cal Greek god would have bet­ter abs, too. That’s what Greek gods are all about, you know, pat­ri­cide and low body fat.”

Mak­ing his read­ers cry and laugh at the same time is what dis­tin­guishes Alexie from so many oth­ers work­ing with sim­i­lar ma­te­rial. A pro­lific per­former, he saw early on in his lit­er­ary ca­reer that speak­ing fees were a far more prac­ti­cal way to fi­nance a lit­er­ary ca­reer than small ad­vances and even smaller ad­junct pro­fes­sor pay. He works just as hard on his stage per­for­mances as he does his po­ems and nov­els. A four-time win­ner of the World Po­etry Bout, Alexie brings an ath­letic vigor to his stage read­ings that can be shock­ing to a book­ish au­di­ence used to a writer timidly voic­ing his work in front of a mi­cro­phone.

Alexie’s first book, a po­etry col­lec­tion called The Busi­ness of Fan­cy­danc­ing, ap­peared in 1991, not long af­ter the author grad­u­ated from Washington State Uni­ver­sity. He hit the na­tional radar in 1993 with the pub­li­ca­tion of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist­fight in Heaven, a se­ries of vi­gnettes set on the Spokane In­dian Reser­va­tion in east­ern Washington. Laden with tragi­comic de­pic­tions of al­co­holism run amok in Na­tive Amer­ica, the book mixes de­scrip­tions of an­cient tribal prac­tices as they col­lide with the mod­ern world of Seat­tle and reser­va­tion life.

Over the next 15 years, Alexie turned out 18 books of po­etry and prose and wrote the screen­play for the 1998 fea­ture film Smoke Sig­nals. He re­mains widely known for his 1996 novel In­dian Killer, an an­gry, vi­o­lent mys­tery in which a Na­tive Amer­i­can se­rial killer stalks white fam­i­lies in Seat­tle, scalp­ing the hus­bands and kid­nap­ping small chil­dren. In the search for the killer, the lives of a racist talk-show host, a young lib­eral In­dian ac­tivist, and a white mys­tery writer who passes him­self off as Na­tive Amer­i­can are for­ever trans­formed.

The racial polemics that un­der­girded that book are turned up­side down in War Dances. Shift­ing cul­tural per­spec­tives, in the book’s open­ing story, “Break­ing and En­ter­ing,” Alexie takes the reader into the mind of a lib­eral paci­fist ur­ban In­dian, of­ten taken for white, who ac­ci­den­tally kills a black teenager who has bro­ken into his house. Ac­cused of a hate crime by the teen’s mom and the me­dia, he makes the mis­take of call­ing up the evening news to an­nounce that he is a Spokane In­dian and to de­fend him­self against ac­cu­sa­tions of racism. “I was sud­denly the most hated man in Seat­tle. And the most beloved,” Alexie writes. “My fel­low lib­er­als spoke of my lat­eral vi­o­lence and the de­struc­tive in­flu­ence of colo­nial­ism on the in­dige­nous, while con­ser­va­tives lauded my de­fen­sive stand and lonely strug­gle against ur­ban crime.” It’s a dis­turb­ing tale of how me­dia nar­ra­tives of race and crime hope­lessly cor­rupt the very real peo­ple they pur­port to help.

One of Alexie’s most en­gag­ing traits as a writer and per­former is his abil­ity to poke fun at him­self and con­stantly work at over­com­ing his short­com­ings. In “War Dances” the pro­tag­o­nist writes a mov­ing, if sen­ti­men­tal, poem to his drunken dead­beat fa­ther as he lies dy­ing in a hos­pi­tal. One page later he says, “You also agree that the en­tire third stanza of this poem sounds like a Bruce Spring­steen song and not nec­es­sar­ily one of the great ones.” The story is a knock­out, com­bin­ing many of Alexie’s most press­ing themes — the bat­tle be­tween fa­thers and sons and the search for a “real” In­dian iden­tity — and told in the style of a bar drunk who’s try­ing to laugh and cry at the same time.

Af­ter his fa­ther com­plains of the cold in the hos­pi­tal, the son goes look­ing through the other wings of the med­i­cal cen­ter in a trou­bled search for other ur­ban In­di­ans who might have a warm blan­ket for his fa­ther. He runs into a few Mex­i­cans (“which is re­ally a kind of In­dian, too, but not the kind that I needed. ... It was hard to tell some­times what peo­ple were. Even brown peo­ple guessed at the iden­tity of other brown peo­ple.”) be­fore find­ing a Na­tive Amer­i­can fam­ily. They tell him, “You’re stereo­typ­ing your own damn peo­ple.” Of course, they em­pathize and hand over an ex­tra Pendle­ton Star Blan­ket. It’s clas­sic Alexie, con­struct­ing and deconstructing stereo­types in one fell swoop.

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