In Sherman Alexie's "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," is Jackson a reliable narrator? Is his story believable? Is it important for Jackson to be reliable or his story to be believable?
In Sherman Alexei’s 2003 short story “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” the narrator, Jackson Jackson, begins his odyssey with the proviso that he will not share with the reader the reason for his being homeless:
“I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.”
What follows, however, is a tale that begs the question: What can possibly be more personal or possibly embarrassing and worth keeping secret than what he confides in the remainder of the story? Apparently, plenty. Jackson’s story of his efforts at securing the $1,000 needed to purchase his grandmother’s long-lost regalia from a local pawn shop is one of continuous irresponsibility – a condition greatly enhanced by his alcoholism – but also of his eminent decency. Every bit of money he attains goes to alcohol or, in one instance, to treat some homeless Aleuts from Alaska to breakfast at a diner known for catering to this particular category of clientele (“the Big Kitchen, a greasy diner in the International District. I knew they served homeless Indians who’d lucked into money”). This encounter with the Native Americans from Alaska is both surreal and, as with Jackson’s other encounters, fleeting. As Alexei’s story progresses, the reader begins to get the feeling that Jackson is destined to fail in his mission of securing his late-grandmother’s ceremonial regalia. That he ends up with that regalia, courtesy of a very kind pawn shop owner, is testament to the good that Jackson sees in people. Even the police officer who picks him up with the intent of taking him to a rehabilitation clinic is a kind soul more interested in helping him than in hurting or hindering Jackson in any way.
Whether Jackson is a reliable narrator, and whether his story is true, is difficult to say. He is certainly a good story-teller, but whether his story is an accurate depiction of events or merely a fantasy is left to the individual reader to decide. On the one hand, who would relate such an improbable story if it isn’t true, especially given the prominent role played by vomiting. Made-up stories invariably portray the story-teller in a more positive light than Jackson’s story, which suggests that he is an irresponsible if kind-hearted drunk. On the other hand, there are two factors that suggest the entire story is fiction. One of those factors is a comment Jackson makes in the story: “. . . we Indians are great storytellers and liars and mythmakers . . .” The other factor is the well-known phenomenon among alcoholics of telling lies exceptionally convincingly.
One does, however, come back to the nature of the story. Jackson’s quest to find the money needed to buy his grandmother’s regalia seems authentic, albeit in an extraordinarily unfortunate manner. Sadly, the Native American community is replete with every kind of serious social problem, including broken families, alcoholism and drug abuse. It is a legacy of the genocidal policies that took a once proud people and ground them into the dirt, but it is the reality in which we live. In this context, Jackson’s continuous failure to save money, using it instead to buy alcohol and to treat his new friends to a meal, reads all-too-real. Having been immersed in this world for a number of years in the upper Midwest, everything Jackson relates sounds believable. In this regard, he is a reliable story-teller. How authentic Jackson’s story is, however, is, as noted above, entirely up to the individual reader to decide. What matters is whether Jackson believes what he says, and it would appear that he does. Whether that is important, again, is a matter of perspective. If a little self-delusion is needed to place an individual, especially a homeless one, in a more positive frame of mind, with an optimistic perception of mankind, then one should give Jackson his due. He has told an ultimately uplifting story. Its authenticity really isn’t important.