Killing last century’s Indian
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.