Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1302
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 does not know his native language enough to teach it to the grandson. When he asks for his mother, the baby’s grandmother, to speak the words in English so that they can understand the meaning, she responds, “It doesn’t make any sense that way,” articulating the linguistic argument that translation cannot always accurately embody the original meaning of a thought in another language. In tending to the needs of an elder with terminal cancer, the narrator confesses to having “dreamed you learned a new language/ after they took your vocal cords.”
Aching with the need to communicate and to articulate, Alexie treats the composition of poetry as a personal vision quest to reconcile the distances that he perceives. He also articulates the difference, or distance, between certain mainstream American values and those commonly shared by Spokane and tribal peoples. “November 22, 1983” looks back on his parents’ reaction two decades earlier to the news of U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The line “ain’t no Indian loves Marilyn Monroe,” for example, suggests cultural distance and difference of opinion in terms of what constitutes feminine beauty and desirability.
In “Special Delivery,” the short story that heads the section Evolution, Thomas Builds-the-Fire allegedly holds reservation postmaster Eve Ford hostage “with the idea of a gun.” The entire section is concerned thematically with the title notion of evolution—of cultures and peoples but especially of their languages. Thomas, as the reservation storyteller, knows profoundly the value of language and its metamorphic development over time, but he is marginalized and even ridiculed by his Spokane peers who make fun of him or—worse, given his identity as a storyteller—ignore him. Ironically, there is no clear or initial “Special Delivery” that Thomas receives—not Eve’s attention or her love, not the respect or even attention of his Spokane brothers and sisters and cousins, and no responses to his letters to members of the U.S. Congress, to game show hosts, and to the president of the United States.
At the end of the story, what Thomas receives instead in a new-ceremony “special delivery” is a visit from his vision animal, limping to him on three legs to tell him “Thomas, you don’t have a dream that will ever come true,” thereby attributing to him the burdens of being a seer. In the title poem, Alexie provides a quick evolutionary summary that describes Buffalo Bill’s arrival on the reservation to open a twenty-four-hour pawn shop across the street from the liquor store. In five brief stanzas, the Indians are said to pawn both traditional and contemporary items as well as their bodies and their skin. Buffalo Bill then converts the pawn shop into the Museum of Native American Cultures and “charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter.”
In “Ceremonies,” Seymour defines “Crazy Horse Dreams” as “the kind that don’t come true,” acknowledging both the personal and professional glorious failures that the Lakota mystic and warrior Crazy Horse experienced. Here and in subsequent works, Crazy Horse serves both as historical figure and continuing metaphor, representing not simply Indian failure but also a sense of visionary leadership and the creative possibility of different and better futures.
This well-meaning—but flawed and tasked—mysterious persona of nineteenth century American Indian culture and history is transposed into a number of contemporary situations: as a clerk at a 7-11 convenience store, working the graveyard shift, drinking free cola and smoking cigarettes from the store stock; as a 3 a.m. hitchhiker on the reservation; as a putative blood donor whose contribution is refused because “we’ve already taken too much of your blood/ and you won’t be eligible/ to donate for another generation or two”; and as a Vietnam veteran who returns home, goes to the Breakaway Bar, and sells his medals for a dozen beers, which he subsequently drinks. Crazy Horse becomes, in effect, a modern-day coyote figure in the folk mythology of Alexie’s work, bringing contradictions into examination and creating situations and narratives that provide insights into how human life should be lived.
At the close of “No Drugs or Alcohol Allowed,” the narrator asserts that although Crazy Horse was presumably killed years ago,
white people don’t realizehe came back to lifeand started his own cable television channel and began the reeducationof all of us who spent so many yearsskinless, driving our cars straight off cliffs directly intothe beginning of nowhere.
Alexie’s treatment of Crazy Horse shows a belief in the sustaining power of the stories and people of the past. This treatment also shows an understanding that the cultural transmission of values will continue to occur principally through structures of popular and electronic culture rather than through traditional and folk culture.
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