The Business of Fancydancing refers to Alexie’s first collection, a compendium of five short stories and forty poems; a single, seven-stanza poem within that collection; a screenplay published by Hanging Loose Press in 2003; and a film produced from the screenplay in 2003.
The seven-stanza poem, though without meter or rhyme scheme, contains powerful figurative language which supports the narrative of the poem, describing fancydance aspirants driving all night to compete and hoping to cover their expenses with prize money in order to be able to drive to the next fancydance contest. Alexie uses traditional folk traditions and objects yet renders them in a modern setting as he moves toward metaphorical flourishes of language.
The fancydancers in the poem are characteristic Alexie characters in that they are familiar with their traditional past but live quite clearly and completely in a contemporary American world which is unforgiving and rife with irony and disappointment. Traditional belief systems have been replaced with ersatz mainstream values which are empty in comparison to the coherent worldview that has been disdained. Vernon WildShoe, the only identified fancydancer in the poem, represents the hope and promise of prize money in the future; he is indeed “a credit card we/ Indians get to use.” Ultimately, the fancydance is reduced to a simple means of sustenance, and an unreliable one at that.
The five short stories and forty poems that form Sherman Alexie’s first published collection add a decidedly unique new voice to contemporary American literature. Alexie, a Spokane Coeur d’Alene American Indian, eloquently describes the challenges facing both reservation and urban American Indians in the final decade of the twentieth century.
The collection is divided into three sections: Distances, Evolution, and Crazy Horse Dreams. Alexie generally begins or ends each section with a prose piece. The poems are usually lyric and brief, though many are narrative and begin to introduce actual or prototype versions of characters whom Alexie later developed in the short stories published as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and in the novel Reservation Blues (1995). With The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie initiates his publishing of collections of mostly poems, but collections that also include significant prose poems and several short stories, all anchored on common controlling metaphors.
Alexie generally employs free verse, though he has notably employed medieval European poetic forms such as the villanelle and the sestina, as he does in “Spokane Tribal Celebration, September 1987.” The sestina originated in medieval Provence, with six sextets and a final three-line envoy; the form uses the six terminal words of the first stanza in a specific and complex pattern in each succeeding stanza. The concluding envoy includes all six of the terminal words in the middle and ends of the three lines and generally includes a dedication to a patron.
In Alexie’s use of the form, he describes the tribal celebration of the title, providing character Seymour’s experience of the powwow as emblematic in certain ways of the experience as a whole. There is irony and resignation when Seymour is quoted as saying, “I/ don’t have no brothers except this night/and the moon and this bottle of dreams.” The allure and comfort of alcohol are noted with humor and despair as the narrator observes wryly, “the only time Indian men/ get close to the earth anymore is when Indian men/ pass out and hit the ground.” In the concluding envoy, there is no dedication but only unanswered queries: “I/wonder if I and the other Indian men/ will drink all night long. If Seymour’s dreams/ will keep him warm like a blanket, like a fire.”
“Traveling,” the initial short story that opens the section Distances, introduces the theme of traveling, across distances, toward an uncertain future across geography that is actual, even as it is mythic. Resigned yet still proud, the narrator bemoans “all the Indians in the bars drinking their culture or boarded up in their houses so much in love with cable television.” The narcotic fix of drinking alcohol or of mindlessly, continuously watching television represents contemporary attempts gone awry in terms of sustainable cultural expression and practice.
The difficulty of language and communication across distances is embodied in different ways in this section as well. In “Translated from the American,” a grandmother insists on speaking to her grandson in Salish, even though the son...