The pain, and weird­ness, of his mother’s life and death

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Sher­man Alexie Lit­tle, Brown. 457 pp. $28 Book re­view by Scott W. Berg

In May 2015, au­thor Sher­man Alexie’s mother, Lil­lian, was rushed to the hos­pi­tal from her home on the Spokane In­dian Reser­va­tion af­ter she found it dif­fi­cult to breathe. One month later, his mother fad­ing fast, Alexie was stopped by his sis­ter on the porch of the fam­ily home and given a warn­ing be­fore he could go in­side and say his good­byes. “I wanted to pre­pare you,” his sis­ter said. “You see, Mom is be­ing af­fec­tion­ate. She’s, like, hug­ging peo­ple and telling us she loves us. It’s weird.”

“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” the mem­oir of Alexie’s trou­bled life his­tory with his mer­cu­rial mother, is his first full-length work of nonfiction. For an au­thor whose work in fic­tion and po­etry is shot through with barely dis­guised per­sonal el­e­ments, it’s, like, weird to get the story in a form that pur­ports to be free of made-up stuff. Weird — but also in­ven­tively ar­ranged, won­der­fully told and al­ways ut­terly heartwrench­ing.

“There’s too much real pain in this story for it to be a lie,” Alexie writes. “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” is a mas­ter sym­phony, a rock opera, a long jazz-fu­sion jam on the theme of pain of all sorts: phys­i­cal, psy­chic, cul­tural, tribal, eco­nomic, his­tor­i­cal, ro­man­tic, lin­guis­tic and on and on. That pain be­gins in pre­mem­ory, when, 5 months old and hy­dro­cephalic, Alexie needs surgery to re­lieve the ex­cess cere­bral spinal fluid press­ing on his brain, and from that mo­ment on, the hits keep com­ing. It’s the fa­mil­iar reser­va­tion pain of too many fu­ner­als to count, too many rapes to fathom, too many fam­ily mem­bers in prison, too few roads lead­ing away from poverty and too many road­blocks for those who do try to get out. It’s the pain of liv­ing with his mother’s on-again, off-again love for her chil­dren; with her sear­ing, pen­e­trat­ing in­tel­li­gence; with her some- times sim­mer­ing, some­times boil­ing anger; and with her near-con­stant mean­ness, in­ter­rupted by acts of as­ton­ish­ing, and con­fus­ing, kind­ness, prac­ticed for the most part on peo­ple other than her chil­dren.

“I imag­ine my mother’s pain and shame were so huge that she could only ap­proach them piece by piece,” Alexie writes. In this way he, and his book, are much like his mother. Just as Alexie’s strug­gles to grow up and make his own way in the world seem like so many shards of sharp glass, rarely co­a­lesc­ing into a sin­gle pane through which he can see clearly, so, too, is the book frac­tured: Its more than 450 pages are bro­ken into 160 chap­ters. More than half of th­ese chap­ters con­sist of po­ems or mi­cro­prose pieces that serve to re­mind us that while Alexie may have first come to wide no­tice as a short-story writer (“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist­fight in Heaven”), and then rose to fame as a young-adult au­thor (“The Ab­so­lutely True Diary of a Part-Time In­dian”), he is first and fore­most a poet, in love with lit­tle bits of lan­guage that add up to some­thing big.

His days on the Spokane reser­va­tion (Alexie even­tu­ally moved to Seat­tle) were “like liv­ing in­side an Edith Whar­ton novel — a place where good and bad man­ners were weaponized” while grief be­comes “a flash fire in our bones” and a first kiss is “a naked Las Ve­gas Cirque du Soleil of the soul.” An early girl­friend is “an ec­cen­tric small-town em­path”; his younger self “the dry drunk poet with a Scrab­ble board full of men­tal ill­ness acronyms”; his mother “a life­guard on the shores of Lake F---ed.”

Alexie looks to the tor­tured pris­on­ers of Abu Ghraib in Iraq to find a fit­ting anal­ogy for the cor­po­ral pun­ish­ments vis­ited on him and other Na­tive Amer­i­can stu­dents by a white teacher in the second grade. He looks to “Star Wars” to ex­plain the dif­fer­ences be­tween more- and less-tra­di­tional Sal­ish In­dian fam­i­lies. And most mov­ingly, he looks to the wild sal­mon pop­u­la­tion wiped out by the con­struc­tion of the Grand Coulee Dam in the 1930s for an equiv­a­lent in the an­i­mal world to his mother, last speaker of the tribal lan­guage, the “last wild sal­mon that re­mem­bered . . . who, in th­ese pages, dies and dies and dies and is con­tin­u­ally re­born.”

Lil­lian Alexie died in June 2015; “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” was all but fin­ished by late 2016. The book is, in one sim­ple way, the story of that year and a half, an ur­gent and sus­tained burst of writ­ing that be­gins with his mother’s death and en­com­passes a for­est fire in Au­gust 2015, two months af­ter her fu­neral, that threat­ened to wipe out the fam­ily home and the Spokane reser­va­tion, along with an­other bout of brain surgery in De­cem­ber 2015 that left Alexie tem­po­rar­ily un­able to con­cen­trate on much of any­thing. In­ter­twined with that slow-mov­ing, re­cur­sive nar­ra­tive are sec­tions that skip and leap across the dy­namic his­tory of his fam­ily and his tribe.

Four­teen years ago, I read a no­tice that Alexie had con­tracted for a work of mem­oir ti­tled “In­vent­ing My Grand­fa­ther,” billed as “a jour­ney in search of a grand­fa­ther he never knew who died serv­ing in the Amer­i­can Army in Ok­i­nawa in 1945.” We’re still wait­ing for that book. This de­lay isn’t un­usual for Alexie, who’s well known for writ­ing con­tracted books on his own sched­ule. Nonethe­less, he has pro­duced a con­sid­er­able body of work: five col­lec­tions of short sto­ries, four nov­els, two screen­plays and nine books of po­etry. But hav­ing fol­lowed his ca­reer over that span, I won­dered, where was that Alexie fam­ily his­tory?

Now we know: He was wait­ing for a more ur­gent call, one cre­ated by his mother’s death.

“I’m al­ways in pain,” Alexie writes. “But I al­ways find my way to the story. And I al­ways find my way home.”

The Spokane In­dian Reser­va­tion was “a place where good and bad man­ners were weaponized.” Sher­man Alexie

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