Review: Sherman Alexie in dark, comic mode with ‘Blasphemy’
New and Selected Stories
Grove Press: 480 pp, $27
Sherman Alexie’s characters live in a kind of dreamscape, a limbo between Native American and white culture, between city life and the reservation.
All sorts of fantastic, improbable things happen in this in-between space. Students channel famous Indian warriors in their high school classes. Donkeys are taught to excel at basketball, the national sport of every Indian tribe.
Against all odds the Native American characters in “Blasphemy,” Alexie’s new anthology of short stories, wander, stumble and blunder their way into moments of clarity and redemption. And they are liberated by laughter.
“The two funniest tribes I’ve been around are Indians and Jews,” one of his characters quips, “so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide.”
Over the years, Alexie has carved out a space in American literature as the great, tragicomic bard of the modern Native American experience. The stories in “Blasphemy,” written over the course of the last two decades, offer ample proof why.
Consider “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” a story that reads like an upside down, demented Bible parable about Jackson, a hopelessly lost Seattle alcoholic.
“I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless,” Jackson says, “because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.”
Jackson is blundering around Seattle with his drinking buddies when he spots a feathered headdress — it looks like the lost “powwow regalia” that belonged to the grandmother he never knew. Upon closer inspection he finds the secret clue his family left in every headdress. So he undertakes a “quest” to earn the $1,000 he’ll need to buy it back.
What follows is a melancholy, tender journey through the world of drunken Seattle. Jackson’s Indian friends help him on his quest, and then disappear again and again. Along the way, he has a memorable, brief encounter with some lost Aleuts from Alaska who’ve been waiting at the Seattle docks 11 years for a ship to come in.
“I cried with them for a while,” Jackson says. “The Aleuts sang their strange and beautiful songs. I listened…They were lonely for cold and snow. I was lonely for everybody.”
Read that story, and many of the others in “Blasphemy,” and you’ll feel you’ve been transported inside the soul of a deeply wounded people. But they are a people too comfortable in their brown skins to allow those wounds to break them.
Instead, the Native American people in Alexie’s stories hold on to their dreams and to their traditions. They talk again and again about being warriors like Crazy Horse — but their battles are in school classrooms or on the basketball court. Native traditions have seeped into their blood, even if they are only “half-breed” (i.e., half-white) Indians, as many characters in these stories are.
“The creator has gifted us with a half-breed who can sing full-blood,” says the Indian elder and prison inmate in the story “Scars,” after hearing and seeing something quite extraordinary: a blond-haired prisoner who knows his tribe’s “powwow songs.”
Reading Alexie is like listening to a man tell stories by a campfire. His writing isn’t the most stylish you’ll read, but the tales themselves are unforgettable and filled with a dizzying array of characters and magical incidents.
In “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” an unemployed man named Victor is headed to that Southwestern state from his reservation in the state of Washington to lay claim to his father’s remains. (The story was adapted into the 1998 film “Smoke Signals”).
Victor hooks up with an annoying old friend, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a tribal storyteller who spins tales no one on the reservation wants to hear. One involves Victor’s departed father. In telling it Alexie crafts an unforgettable image of the Spokane tribe’s millennial history, and the now-extinct salmon that once leaped at the waterfall that runs in the center of the city that carries the tribe’s name.
“I’m going to travel to Spokane Falls one last time and toss [your father’s] ashes into the water,” Thomas says. “And your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home.”
There’s something timeless about that tale, and many others in “Blasphemy,” which consists of 15 previously published stories and 15 new ones.
Unfortunately, not all of the new pieces are gems, including, oddly, the very first in the collection. “Cry, Cry, Cry” relates an especially grim tale of methamphetamine addiction. It’s a story that feels, to this reader, exploitative and shallow and lacking in the humanity and insight that is so present in the rest of Alexie’s work.
But these are small missteps. And they detract only slightly from the great triumph of Alexie’s work in “Blasphemy.” These are stories that define the fortitude of a people. With irony and sardonic wit, the Native men and women in Alexie’s imagination find a way forward, and they endure.
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