Alexie, from his earliest poems and short stories, has created a particular style that distinguishes his poetry, prose, and screenplays. His writing flashes repeatedly with insights, often stated via outrageously creative and subject-specific figurative language. Alexie essentially teaches about the cultures that he knows without being didactic. His reading audiences often learn about Indian traditions and expectations through what his characters have lost, through what they miss by its absence. Alexie’s characters are vulnerable and compelling; they are fraught with personal and systemic shortcomings, but their human fallibility underscores their ability to illustrate poignant moments of the common human condition.
Alexie’s work is suffused with irony. He generally creates characters who care deeply about others yet who often act with insensitivity and anger, rendering them dangerous. His characters, especially the young Indian men, seek to forge a noble and heroic adult identity, yet Alexie complains on multiple occasions that most of them keep their birth names through their entire lives rather than having a vision and defining experience which would lead them to achieve and receive their adult names.
At the same time, however, Alexie understands that modern-day ceremonies can be as simple and poignant as a loving father who repeatedly opens his wallet at Christmastime for his children, only to find each time that it is empty of money. The recurrent themes of loss, identity, poverty as cause and poverty as result of substance abuse continue to be treated in Alexie’s work, even as the characters of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor and Aristotle and Junior Polatkin, among others, continue to appear in his fiction and poetry.
Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues (1994), deserves greater attention as well as a film adaptation. The plot of the novel is based on the unlikely premise that blues legend Robert Johnson did not, in fact, die in Mississippi in 1938 but survived into 1991, when he was hitchhiking on the Spokane Indian Reservation, was picked up by Thomas, and purposefully left the guitar on the floor of the van. Johnson’s Faustean deal with the devil, “The Gentleman,” is thereafter transferred to Thomas, Victor, and the others as the all-Indian blues band Coyote Springs rises quickly to regional stardom, then plummets just as quickly.
Although Alexie has gained international attention and a significant place in North American college literature syllabi through his poetry and fiction, his two screenplays, Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancydancing, may ultimately be of greater significance to his reputation and to positioning Indian concerns and Indian subcultures on the national arts and visual media agenda. Smoke Signals was the first nationally distributed film with an all-Indian cast. It continues to enjoy popularity on college campuses and at conferences. The Business of Fancydancing, perhaps hampered by a more limited release, filled art house and college venues and was the darling of film festivals through 2002-2003.
The Business of Fancydancing
First published: 1992
Type of work: Poetry and short stories
Alexie’s first collection of poetry and short stories introduces his unorthodox style, his quirky humor, and the characters of Thomas, Junior, and Crazy Horse.
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 Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor”
First published: 1993 (collected in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, 1993)
Type of work: Short story
This story, told in first-person voice by Jimmy Many Horses, details his relationship with his wife and his defense mechanisms—principally, humor—to cope with a sentence of terminal cancer.
“The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor” reprises some of Alexie’s recurrent concerns: relationships, traditional values versus modern society, alcoholism, and ironically doomed lives. Jimmy Many Horses retells the history of his relationship with his wife, Norma, from the initial meeting at the Powwow Tavern through their problematic relationship, including grappling with alcohol addiction and Jimmy’s death sentence of terminal cancer. Jimmy’s recollection of their relationship includes a classic Indian Country pickup line, “Listen . . . if I stole 1,000 horses, I’d give you 501 of them.” Although their wedding took place at the Spokane Tribal Longhouse and although Norma is known as the world champion fry bread maker, traditional belief and custom do not especially inform their lives.
Jimmy’s cavalier humor about his terminal condition enrages Norma to the point that she leaves him temporarily to go on the powwow circuit. She ends up in Arlee, Montana, with a “second kind of cousin” before returning to be with Jimmy in his last days because, as she explains, “making fry bread and helping people die are two things Indians are good at.” The title of the story comes from Jimmy’s description of an X ray of one of his tumors which was the approximate size and shape of a baseball—with faint stitch marks on it. Norma finds distasteful Jimmy’s attempt to make a joke out of his...
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