Alexie, Sherman (Vol. 154)
Sherman Alexie 1966-
(Full name Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr.) American poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Alexie's career through 2000. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 96) and Sherman Alexie Poetry Criticism.
Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native-American writers of his generation. Best known for his bold portrayal of the harsh realities of reservation life, Alexie has become a modern voice in the continuing search for Native-American cultural identity. Alexie's works detail, with dark humor, the debilitating influence of alcoholism and poverty that pervade life on the reservation as well as the anger that results from the distortion of true Indian culture. He is recognized as an innovative realist and erudite contributor to the modern Native-American tradition.
Born on October 7, 1966, Alexie was raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. At birth he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and, at six months of age, underwent perilous surgery to drain the fluid from his brain. Despite pessimistic predictions, Alexie not only survived but also became a child prodigy, learning to read by the age of two. He was mocked by other children due to his intellectual superiority and the appearance of his enlarged skull, a result of his past medical condition. His family life offered little comfort or shelter. His father was an absentee alcoholic and his mother worked long hours as a trading-post clerk and quilt-maker in order to support the family of eight. The social rejection Alexie experienced drove him to become an avid reader and dedicated student. When the school in Wellpinit could not provide him with the required credit he needed to attend college, Alexie transferred to Reardan High School, a predominantly white school located 30 miles from the reservation. At Reardan, Alexie gained acceptance from other students and became the school's basketball team captain, class president, and a member of the debate team. In 1985, he graduated with honors and gained a scholarship to Gonzaga University, where he began studying with aspirations of becoming a doctor. During this time, Alexie began to feel racially alienated and began abusing alcohol. This addiction greatly influenced the themes of his early writing. Alexie finally stopped drinking and began attending Washington State University. He took a poetry class taught by Alex Kuo, who encouraged him to pursue a career in writing. He graduated in 1991 and, in 1992, he published the poetry collection I Would Steal Horses and the poetry/short fiction collection The Business of Fancydancing, which was deemed the 1992 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Alexie continued to publish his poetry with Old Shirts & New Skins (1993) and First Indian on the Moon (1993). His next volume, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), which is comprised entirely of short fiction, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Alexie then published his first novel, Reservation Blues, which was awarded the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1995. This was followed by his second novel, Indian Killer, in 1996, and The Summer of Black Widows (1997), a collection of poetry. After publishing in several literary genres, Alexie decided to expand his talent into a different type of media, writing the screenplay for the film Smoke Signals (1998). The film, adapted from portions of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival's audience award. Alexie's other notable awards include the Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Writer's Award, a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Taos Poetry Circle World Heavyweight Championship Awards from 1998 to 2000. Additionally, he was named one of the twenty best young American novelists by Granta and The New Yorker. Alexie returned to the poetry genre in 2000 with the publication of The Toughest Indian in the World. Alexie lives in Seattle with his Native-American wife, Diane, and their son, Joseph. Alexie also remains active in the Native-American community, having served on the Presidential Panel for the National Dialogue on Race and on the board of directors for the American Indian College Fund.
Throughout his work in several genres, Alexie often explores themes of despair, poverty, alcoholism, and racial anger—emotions that pervade the daily lives of modern American Indians. His early collection of poetry and short fiction, The Business of Fancydancing, portrays the reality of the banal existence experienced on the reservation and dissects the notion of “Crazy Horse dreams,” or aspirations that fail to materialize. Alexie evokes a type of magical realism, in which historical and fictional characters—such as Crazy Horse and Buffalo Bill—are awkwardly placed in modern-day situations. He also creates Native-American characters, who recurrently appear drinking, playing basketball, and often committing small crimes. Irony, which pervades Alexie's work, is used to juxtapose traditional views about Native Americans with the contemporary actuality of American-Indian life. These themes also suffuse his other poetry collections, including I Would Steal Horses and Old Shirts & New Skins. The characters in these works evoke a sense of powerlessness in their struggle for daily physical and emotional survival and in their fight to recover a lost cultural identity. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven captures this sense of a search for cultural redefinition, focusing on the pain, desolation, and bitterness that are experienced in the process. Alexie also revisits magical realism in this collection, portraying real and fictional cultural icons of the past such as Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, the Lone Ranger, and Tonto amidst images of 7–Eleven stores, television, basketball, and commodity food items. The structural style of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is often considered fragmented and is constructed of introspective epiphanies, allowing characters to come to terms with past and present interpretations of Native-American culture. Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues, explores the successes and failures of an Native-American rock band with lofty dreams. One of Alexie's recurring characters, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, is given a guitar that once belonged to the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson. Johnson donates the guitar in order to escape from a deal he has made with the devil. As a result, the guitar is believed to be mystical. In the novel, Alexie extends characterizations of the Native-American reservation inhabitants from his other works, reiterating the adversity faced by American Indians. Alexie later experimented with the genre of mystery in his highly controversial novel Indian Killer. In this work, John Smith, an American Indian adopted by white parents, is suspected, along with other urban Native-American characters, of a series of murders in which the victims are scalped. Appearing throughout the work are Alexie's recurrent themes of racial hostility and Indian cultural distortion. The Summer of Black Widows reiterates, with dark poetic humor, the hardships experienced on the reservation, the Native-American loss of ethnicity, and the desecration of the environment, intermingled with an abject acceptance of modern American culture. Alexie entered the world of filmmaking with his debut screenplay, Smoke Signals, an adaptation of his short fiction from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. The film was the first motion picture to feature—both in front of the camera and behind the scenes—an all-Native-American cast. Alexie returned to poetry and short fiction in 2000 with the publication of The Toughest Indian in the World. The work, through the diverse experiences and internal examination of its characters, attempts to define the Native American. This search for definition is left open, however, to be determined by the individual reader. In his writing, Alexie captures the hopelessness in Native-American society and explores the possibilities of forgiveness, acceptance, and reconstruction of cultural identity.
Alexie's work has been almost universally received as revolutionary, bold, and realistically reflective. His poetry and short fiction have been praised by critics for their realistic portrayals of the Native-American experience in resistance to the contemporary American mainstream conceptualization of the American Indian. Critics have lauded his use of dark satire and subtle epiphany to reshape the American view of his culture. His talent, according to reviews, lies in his ability to juxtapose humor with tragedy, historical figures with modern situations, and real people with fictitious characters. He has been noted for contrasting the “movie version” of the American Indian with the banal existence led by actual modern Indians, and the aspirations of the Native American with the powerless, hopeless reality of failure. Some critics have viewed Alexie's realism as harsh and racist—filled with hatred and anger against Anglo-American culture. Others, however, have viewed his powerful emotion as a catalyst for change and admire his refusal to submit to the idealistic stereotypes placed upon Native Americans. Proponents of Alexie's work have also refuted his ireful attitude with assertions that he embraces many aspects of contemporary American culture in his writing. With regard to his unique poetic and prose structure, some have viewed his form as truncated and underdeveloped. Many critics, however, have contended that his innovative form artfully complements his themes and augments his subtle satiric undertones. While many critics have agreed that Alexie's thematics are sometimes overpowering, they also argue that Alexie is one of the foremost Native-American literary realists of his generation.
The Business of Fancydancing (poetry and short stories) 1992
I Would Steal Horses (poetry) 1992
First Indian on the Moon (poetry) 1993
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories) 1993
Old Shirts & New Skins (poetry) 1993
Reservation Blues (novel) 1995
Indian Killer (novel) 1996
The Summer of Black Widows (poetry) 1997
Smoke Signals (screenplay) 1998
One Stick Song (poetry and short stories) 2000
The Toughest Indian in the World (short stories) 2000
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SOURCE: Ullman, Leslie. “Betrayals and Boundaries: A Question of Balance.” Kenyon Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1993): 186–88.
[In the following excerpt, Ullman offers a positive assessment of the equivocal and metaphysical nature of The Business of Fancydancing.]
Sherman Alexie's collection of poems and stories [in The Business of Fancydancing] weaves a curiously soft-blended tapestry of humor, humility, pride, and metaphysical provocation out of the hard realities that make up its material: the tin-shack lives, the alcohol dreams, the bad luck and burlesque disasters, and the self-destructive courage of his characters, all Coeur D'Alene Indians living on the Spokane Indian reservation. Alexie is a member of this tribe. This, his first published collection, is tautly written and versatile in its use of forms, which include prose vignettes, two villanelle, and several delicately constructed, songlike poems making skillful use of white space. The collection also contains so many fine moments, subtle and forceful arrivals, that I wish I could simply quote whole pieces of it here.
Perhaps it is continual presence of paradox, in many forms, which makes this collection inspire a deep thoughtfulness and awe for something enduring inside its characters, where it could just as well inspire indignation on their behalf or derision for their behavior. To the outward eye, there is not much...
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SOURCE: Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “America at the Crossroads: Life on the Spokane Reservation.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 June 1995): 2, 7.
[In the following favorable review of Reservation Blues, Klinkenborg praises Alexie's illustration of Native American life, his use of dark humor, and his consciousness of audience.]
The Spokane Native American reservation, as the novelist Sherman Alexie imagines it, surrounds Wellpinit Mountain in eastern Washington. “Pine trees blanketed the mountain and the rest of the reservation. The town of Wellpinit sat in a little clearing below the mountain. Cougars strolled through the middle of town; a bear once staggered out of hibernation too early, climbed onto the roof of the Catholic Church, and fell back asleep.” The Spokane reservation—“Population: Variable”—is almost empty of people but full of their forgetting, a place where life is ordered by “rules of conduct that aren't collected into any book and have been forgotten by most of the tribe,” but the dietary staples are beer, commodity cheese, commodity applesauce and commodity peanut butter.
Big Mom, a legendary source of wisdom and the best fry bread cook on the reservation, lives at the top of Wellpinit Mountain. One day, a black man appears on her doorstep. He is Robert Johnson, the great blues guitarist, who wrote a famous song about going to the crossroads....
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SOURCE: Low, Denise. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 1 (winter 1996): 123–25.
[In the following review, Low examines Alexie's short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in relation to postmodernist theory.]
Peter Burger, in Theory of the Avant-Garde, notes that artistic works reflect the time and place, or history, of their cultures, “the unfolding of object and the elaboration of categories are connected” (p. 16). Sherman Alexie's short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven could not have been written during any other period of history. The twenty-two short tales read like a casebook of postmodernist theory—beyond surrealism and absurdity, and certainly beyond classicism. Irony, pastiche, and mingling of popular cultures occur throughout the book.
David Lehman gives one of the most succinct definitions of the cultural event called postmodernism in the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle:
It revels in comedy and exalts the spirit of parody and play. It treats the monuments of tradition in particular with jubilant irreverence. The distinction between artifacts of high and low culture gets leveled. Characters and lives are confused. Poems based on intricate rules are written in a kind of...
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SOURCE: Gillan, Jennifer. “Reservation Home Movies: Sherman Alexie's Poetry.” American Literature 68, no. 1 (March 1996): 91–110.
[In the following essay, Gillan examines Alexie's work and comments on its focus on an anglicized version of American-Indian history and tradition.]
When David Bell, the protagonist in Don DeLillo's Americana, leaves New York, he heads north on a long journey into the “gut of America.”1 He arrives in a small Maine town resembling a sound stage and stays overnight in an old house, “the place where everyone's grandmother lives in television commercials.” He is told a story about a Sioux holy man, Black Knife, who prophesies that only a trip into what Bell earlier calls the swamp of our being would cure America and allow it to become, finally, “the America that fulfills all of its possibilities” (128–29). The story reassures David that he needs to travel to the “great golden West” filled with Indians to find the “big outdoor soul of America” (123, 25). Although, like many before him, he sets off on a road trip west hoping to find America in the heart of Indian country, he never makes it to his destination. Instead, he finds himself in a small Midwestern town, unable to piece together the “fragments of the exploded dream” (137) of his life and of America.
Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian from...
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SOURCE: Lemon, Lee. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. Prairie Schooner 70, no. 1 (spring 1996): 185–86.
[In the following excerpt, Lemon offers a positive assessment of Reservation Blues.]
This is in part a catch-up review because some books that are too good to ignore were, for one reason or another, missed when they came out.
With three '90s novels by Louis Owens (one previously reviewed), works by Sherman Alexie, and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (also reviewed earlier), we may be witnessing the birth of a subgenre—Native North American Magic Realism. Like its southerly counterpart, the genre is fascinating both conceptually and because of the large talents of its practitioners. …
Alexie's Reservation Blues tells the story of a Native American country blues and rock band, Coyote Springs, that is formed after one of the reservation bullies receives a magic summons from the guitar of the legendary bluesman Lionel Johnson. Johnson has appeared on the reservation in search of a woman of magical powers who will show him how to break his pact with the devil—to whom he has sold his soul in return for his prodigious talent as a blues guitarist. Like Owens and the best of the new Native American writers, Alexie portrays reservation life with both honesty and compassion, recognizing both the frustrating poverty and...
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SOURCE: Meredith, Howard. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 446–47.
[In the following review, Meredith examines the incorporeal motifs and the spiritual importance of the reservation in Reservation Blues.]
The art of Sherman Alexie surprises and delights the reader as the dreamlike images and hard-edged realities in Reservation Blues find a center on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Form and content act in unity to provide a captivating story of the tragic sense of life within a Spokane frame of reference. This beautifully written vision of the earth invites participation in specific patterns of existence.
Reservation Blues provides an intimate perception of Spokane tribal tenets and mood within a multicultural frame of reference. Death, alcohol, poverty, book-burning, and child abuse find their place, along with a sense of the land and the search for tradition. Thomas Builds-the-Fire speaks in a dream sequence for the community when he says, “Maybe something bad is going to happen to us if we don't have something better on our mind.” Each character provides added richness to the community in which the story is set, from the Warm Water sisters Chess and Checkers, to Big Mom the Spokane medicine woman, to Robert Johnson the magnificent blues guitarist.
Thomas loves the land. The...
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SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and Doug Marx. “Sherman Alexie: A Reservation of the Mind.”Publishers Weekly (16 September 1996): 39–40.
[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his initiation into literature and his adherence to realism in writing about the American-Indian experience.]
Six years ago, as a 24-year-old student at Washington State University, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, set down his career goals at the insistence of a friend: 1) to publish ten books by age 30; 2) to see a book on the silver screen by 35; and 3) to receive a major literary prize by 40.
With Indian Killer his third prose work, a tragic thriller about the ravages of cultural dilution and dissolution, out this month from Grove/Atlantic, and The Summer of Black Widows, his seventh collection of poetry, out in October from Hanging Loose Press, the first goal will be achieved. Three of Alexie's books—his first short-story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, his novel Reservation Blues and Indian Killer—are the subject of ongoing film negotiations. As for a major literary award, if review acclaim from such established masters as Reynolds Price, Leslie Marmon Silko and Frederick Bausch, not to mention inclusion in the recent “Best of Young American Novelists” issue of Granta, means anything, Alexie could well win his...
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SOURCE: Bell, Madison Smart. “Native Son: Sherman Alexie Explores the Confusion and Anger Born of Oppression.” Chicago Tribune Books (17 November 1996): sec. 14, p. 3.
[In the following review, Bell explores the rage experienced by the Native-American characters due to the loss of their cultural identity in Indian Killer.]
Over the course of writing several novels, Sherman Alexie has evolved a style that might be called modern Indian magical realism: a melange that combines grindingly realistic portrayals of reservation life today with swift and deft satirical sketches of the rest of modern American society, connected by natural and supernatural events and interpenetrated with episodes from the one-sided, 19th Century struggle between embattled Indian tribes and the encroaching white people. At his best, Alexie can integrate all these disparate ingredients into some fascinating, and fantastic, conceit.
Suppose, for instance, that Spokane Indians got hold of musician Robert Johnson's guitar, a magical instrument that would both play itself and tell the Indians what to do. Such is the premise for Reservation Blues, Alexie's previous novel. At the beginning, Indian Killer, his current work, looks as if it will be more staidly and steadily realistic.
John Smith is born to a 14-year-old Indian mother and adopted at birth by a white couple in Seattle,...
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SOURCE: Sherman, Alexie, and Erik Himmelsbach. “Reluctant Spokesman.” Los Angeles Times (17 December 1996): E1, E6.
[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his hesitancy to serve as a representative of the Native-American community at large, his tribe's often bitter attitude toward him, and the film industry's preconceptions about Native Americans.]
Sherman Alexie is ready to play cards with Satan.
The 30-year-old author is hunkered down at the Beverly Prescott, in town to discuss the film rights to his latest novel, Indian Killer, a slyly subversive potboiler about a serial murderer whose actions spark a modern battle of cowboys and Indians in Seattle. It may seem like perfect big-screen fodder, but Alexie, a Spokane Coeur d'Alene, harbors no illusions and is prepared for the inevitable raw deal from Hollywood.
“The real problem is that there's no white hero in my book,” he says. “They want loincloths. They want sweat lodges and vision quests. They want Dances with Wolves, and I don't write that.”
If producers aren't sensitive to the particulars of the late 20th century American Indian, at least no one's mentioned Lou Diamond Phillips.
“I think he's done with the Indian thing,” Alexie says with a grin. “He's done four or five of them, and they all flopped. Hopefully, he hasn't read the book and...
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SOURCE: Bolton-Fasman, Judith. “One Author's Effort at Myth Killing.” Christian Science Monitor (6 January 1997): 13.
[In the following review, Bolton-Fasman praises Indian Killer for Alexie's skillful character development and his blunt treatment of racism in America.]
Sherman Alexie is a native American who discounts that designation as a “guilty white liberal term”; he prefers to be called Indian. Indian Killer is his second novel and it is the literary thriller at its best.
Alexie transforms the genre into a sharp, multilayered format that enables him to engage his readers on a number of levels. It's a terrifically readable whodunit with a fascinating group of suspects. It's also a complex history lesson that is eloquently expressed in fantasy, myth, and fact.
The plot centers on the random murders of white men in Seattle; all of the physical evidence points to a killer of Indian heritage. But the trouble really begins years earlier with a questionable adoption. A baby boy is wrenched from his 14-year-old Indian mother and handed over to a well-meaning white couple named Olivia and Daniel Smith.
Although they try to keep their son connected to his heritage, they are so clueless about his Indian identity that they name him John Smith.
John grows up culturally disoriented, searching for his mother, constantly...
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SOURCE: Berner, Robert L. Review of The Summer of Black Widows, by Sherman Alexie. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 430–31.
[In the following review, Berner offers a positive assessment of The Summer of Black Widows, commenting favorably on Alexie's portrayal of the true Native-American cultural experience and his use of dark satire.]
In Sherman Alexie's title poem, black widow spiders, appearing on the Spokane reservation in miraculous numbers, become a metaphor for stories. The summer is full of spiders and thus rich in stories, and even after the spiders disappear, their evidence is found in every corner of a place that remains rich in poetic possibility.
The Summer of Black Widows includes some of the most powerful poems in our literature about the experience of living on an Indian reservation surrounded by the world its tribe has lost. Consider three examples: a poem about Spokane Falls, “That Place Where Ghosts of Salmon Jump,” in which the loss of the salmon to urban and industrial concrete relates to women mourning for children who cannot return home; “The Exaggeration of Despair,” a catalogue of horrific cases of social and cultural disintegration; and “The Powwow at the End of the World,” a denunciation of crimes against the environment and against Alexie's tribe which succeeds as a poem even though those who attempt to do this...
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SOURCE: Donahue, Peter. “New Warriors, New Legends: Basketball in Three Native American Works of Fiction.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 44–48, 51–55, 57–60.
[In the following excerpt, Donahue discusses the significance of basketball in Native-American culture as evidenced in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues.]
In basketball, we find enough reasons to believe in God …
… In the past two decades, basketball has become an obsession on many American Indian reservations. This obsession has brought exuberance and dejection, pride and shame, and hope and despair to the many Indian youth who play the game as well as to spectators. As played by Native Americans, the game has been influenced by various traditional customs, beliefs, and legends. At the same time, it has exerted its own reshaping influence upon these cultural forces. Throughout Welch's The Indian Lawyer and Alexie's Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues, the two writers scrutinize the profound cultural significance that basketball has on Native American residents of Indian reservations, recognizing both the perils and the promise that the game offers.
The establishment of origin stories...
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SOURCE: McFarland, Ron. “‘Another Kind of Violence’: Sherman Alexie's Poems.” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 252–55, 257–64.
[In the following excerpt, McFarland examines the polemic nature of Alexie's writing and his unique poetic form.]
When a new poet [Sherman Alexie] comes on the scene, it is “both fitting and proper” to identify him or her, not so much with the intention of fixing and formulating with a phrase, but with the intention of providing a point of departure or a common ground. As to what constitutes an identity as a “Native American poet,” I would suggest that it has most to do with how the poet, in this case Sherman Alexie, presents himself or allows himself to be presented by publishers and publicists. The job of the literary critic and scholar is to create contexts for discussion and discourse.
James R. Kincaid, in his review essay, “Who Gets to Tell Their Stories?” in the New York Times Book Review for May 3, 1992, concluded, “Mr. Alexie's is one of the major lyric voices of our time.” He was speaking in the hyperbolic language of the book cover blurb of then twenty-five-year-old Sherman Alexie's first collection of poems, The Business of Fancydancing. While Alexie is a very promising young poet, his talents are not in the lyric, as I shall demonstrate hereafter, and whether his is a “major” voice of...
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SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and John Purdy. “Crossroads: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie.” Studies in Native American Literature 9, no. 4 (winter 1997): 1–18.
[In the following interview, conducted on October 4, 1997, Alexie discusses his role in the film Smoke Signals, his desire to be universally accessible, his views on publication, and his opinion of modern American-Indian writers.]
This conversation took place on 4 October 1997, a rainy, early autumn morning in an east Seattle café near Sherman Alexie's home. It is an interesting neighborhood, for it sits on a clearly demarcated boundary: on one side, the intercity struggle for survival—economic and otherwise—and on the other the affluent mansions lining Lake Washington. The café sits directly on the line.
My colleague and former student, Frederick Pope, went with me to talk with Alexie, who is in much demand; in fact, that evening he was scheduled to read at Left Bank Books, for a benefit to provide books for Native American inmates of this country's prisons. As always, it was an interesting and dynamic discussion and, on our trip home, Fred and I agreed; it was candid, wide ranging, profoundly playful.
We began with a discussion of his recently completed movie. As with his writing career, his film involvement seems to be progressing rapidly. Two weeks after our meeting, the...
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SOURCE: Gorra, Michael. “Hopeless Warriors.” London Review of Books 28, no. 9 (5 March 1998): 1.
[In the following review, Gorra offers a negative assessment of Reservation Blues, focusing on Alexie's failure to blend humor with drama and his overly didactic tone.]
In Indian Killer, Sherman Alexie's second novel, two members of the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington in Seattle exchange banalities in a parking lot:
‘Dr Mather!’ said the white man as he approached. ‘Dr Mather, it's me. It's Dr Faulkner.’
‘Good evening, Dr Faulkner. How are you?’
‘Fine, fine. How was your class?’
‘Well, I'm having trouble with a student. An Indian student, actually. She is very disruptive.’
This is not an exchange that I can imagine taking place in any car park on any American campus, where secretaries routinely address university presidents by their first names. Either Alexie doesn't know what he's writing about, or this is meant to demonstrate the pomposity of male Caucasians, academics especially. I would like to think that his intentions were entirely satirical, but in its stiffness the passage too closely resembles the rest of...
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SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and Dennis West and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23, no. 4 (fall 1998): 29–32.
[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his screenplay for the film Smoke Signals and comments on a variety of topics including stereotypical film portrayals of American Indians, the autobiographical elements of the movie, and the film's motif of fatherlessness.]
[Cineaste:] You have called your screenplay [Smoke Signals] “groundbreaking” because of its portrayal of Indians. Why?
[Alexie:] Well, it's a very basic story, a road trip/buddy movie about a lost father, so I'm working with two very classical, mythic structures. You can find them in everything from The Bible to The Iliad and The Odyssey. What is revolutionary or groundbreaking about the film is that the characters in it are Indians, and they're fully realized human beings. They're not just the sidekick, or the buddy, they're the protagonists. Simply having Indians as the protagonists in a contemporary film, and placing them within this familiar literary and cinematic structure, is groundbreaking.
Do you think Powwow Highway (1989) was one of the more worthy previous efforts?
When it came out, I loved it, and I saw it three times at the Micro Movie House in...
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SOURCE: Georgakas, Dan. Review of Smoke Signals, by Sherman Alexie. Cineaste 23, no. 4 (fall 1998): 28.
[In the following review, Georgakas offers a positive assessment of Smoke Signals, asserting that Alexie displays a unique ability to break from the traditional portrayal of modern American-Indian culture in film.]
Every few years or so, press kits arrive at the offices of film magazines announcing that a forthcoming film about Native Americans decisively breaks with the stereotypes of the past. Smoke Signals is the latest film to advertise itself so, but, unlike most of its predecessors, Smoke Signals delivers on its promises. A prime component of its success is that it is the first feature to have been written, directed, and coproduced by Native Americans, and also features Native Americans in all the lead roles.
The storyline is a variation of the odyssey theme. In this instance, rather than focusing on a warrior/father struggling to return to his home, the plot turns on a warrior/son struggling to physically and emotionally find an alcoholic father who fled his home and died in self-exile. Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), an abandoned son who has grown up on the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho, must undertake a journey to collect the ashes of his father, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), who has died in Phoenix, Arizona. Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams)...
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SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Nothing But Net.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 June 2000): 4.
[In the following review, Levi explores the diversity of Alexie's American-Indian characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]
“What is an Indian?” Sherman Alexie asks in his latest collection of stories, The Toughest Indian in the World. Is it the college student of the story “One Good Man,” who boasts of long black hair and skin dark as a pecan? “I'd grown up on my reservation with my tribe. I understood most of the Spokane language, though I'd always spoken it like a Jesuit priest. Hell, I'd been in three car wrecks! And most importantly, every member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians could tell you the exact place and time where I'd lost my virginity.”
What is an Indian? Is it the hitchhiker picked up by the Camry-driving narrator of “The Toughest Indian in the World,” an Indian fighter whose “fingers were twisted into weird, permanent shapes, and his knuckles were covered with layers of scar tissue,” a tough guy who crawls into a motel bed with the narrator, another Indian, to stroke and rub in the dead of night? Or, in the best American tradition of Whitman and Dickinson, “is it a boy who can sing the body electric or a woman who could not stop for death?”
For that matter, what is a white person? “They'll kill you if they get...
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SOURCE: Penner, Jonathan. “Full Blooded.” Washington Post Book World (9 July 2000): 7.
[In the following review, Penner comments on Alexie's exploration of the struggle for American-Indian cultural identity as experienced by the characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]
The protagonists of these nine stories [in The Toughest Indian in the World] are all proud to be Indians but hardly comfortable, or even quite sure what it means. “What is an Indian?” is a question asked over and over, either implicitly or in just those words.
What indeed? These aren't Hemingway's Indians, drunks freezing to death at the roadside. Sherman Alexie's Spokanes and Coeur d'Alenes, uncomfortably half-assimilated, tend to be fiercely intellectual (one insists that cars deserve love—specifically, agape) and as witty as stand-up comics. At the same time, they long to be warriors, comparing their own tribulations to those of Geronimo, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
Being Indian in America is not, for them, an easy condition. Race shapes their entire lives, including the search for love. One protagonist submits to anal intercourse with “the toughest Indian in the world” in order to fire his own tepid ethnicity. Another tries to make peace between a white lesbian friend and the angry parents of her Indian lover. A third, tired of his white wife, goes to an Indian bar to...
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SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Haunted by Salmon.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 12 (20 July 2000): 20.
[In the following review, Oates explores the search for ethnicity undertaken by the characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]
What is an Indian? runs through Sherman Alexie's second collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian in the World, like a demented, demanding mantra. In these nine stories, irony is sounded like the tribal drums of the ghost musicians of the story “Saint Junior” that haunt the Spokane Indian Reservation. (“Irony, a hallmark of the contemporary indigenous American.”) Alexie, best known for his novels Reservation Blues and Indian Killer, is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian educated at Gonzaga University and Washington State University, a funny, irreverent, sardonic but sentimental, rebellious postmodernist voice set beside his elder and conspicuously more writerly and “spiritual” Native American contemporaries N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich. Sherman Alexie is the bad boy among them, mocking, self-mocking, unpredictable, unassimilable, reminding us of the young Philip Roth whose controversial works of fiction “The Conversion of the Jews” and Portnoy's Complaint outraged an older generation for whom anything Jewish had to be sacrosanct.
Unfortunately, Sherman Alexie's ironic...
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Cline, Lynn. “About Sherman Alexie.” Ploughshares 26, no. 4 (winter 2000): 197–202.
Cline offers an overview of the life and career of Sherman Alexie.
Alessio, Carolyn. “Sherman Alexie's Characters Struggle to Establish Their Identities On and Off the Reservation.” Chicago Tribune (4 June 2000): 5.
Alessio offers a positive assessment of The Toughest Indian in the World.
Bankston, Carl L., III. “Weaving the Line of the Spirit.” Bloomsbury Review 12, no. 6 (September 1992): 7.
Bankston discusses the characterization in The Business of Fancydancing, commenting that Alexie's poetry diverges from his usual themes of everyday life.
Cliff, Michelle. “Poetry Is a Way of Reaching Out to What Is Reaching for You.” American Poetry Review 24, no. 4 (July 1995): 29–30, 34–35.
Cliff discusses the despair and tragedy that exists on Indian reservations and their portrayal in Alexie's work.
Caro, Mark. “Strong Signals.” Chicago Tribune (3 July 1998): 7A, 7N.
Caro offers a mixed assessment of Smoke Signals, lauding Alexie's characterizations, style, and humor, but criticizing the film for failing to develop its symbolism adequately....
(The entire section is 507 words.)