illustrated portrait of American Indian author Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

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Sherman Alexie American Literature Analysis

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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...

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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 medical diagnosis; however, she has returned by the end of the story to be with Jimmy in his last days, and their joking together and their domestic dialogue prove the metaphorical point that Jimmy makes in narration in the middle of the story: “Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds.”

“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”

First published: 1993 (collected in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, 1993)

Type of work: Short story

Victor Polatkin and Thomas Builds-the-Fire travel to pick up the ashes of Victor’s father near Phoenix, then return to the Res in Washington State.

“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” which several years after it was written provided most of the plot underpinnings of Alexie’s first movie, Smoke Signals, presages some of the later concerns of Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues (1995), in which Victor and Thomas and several other “skins” create an all-Indian blues band known as Coyote Springs, and they go on the road. This story, however, is neatly structured around news of Victor’s father’s death in Arizona and the task of retrieving his ashes, old pickup truck, and modest savings and returning north.

Thomas is perhaps Alexie’s most compelling character in terms of being deeply esconced within his tribal traditions yet still willing and able to critique those traditions and articulate various ironies. As Thomas greets Victor at the tribal trading post and expresses condolences for his loss, Victor asks how Thomas learned of Victor’s father’s passing. Thomas, the tribal storyteller, says: “I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying.” Thomas continues throughout the story as both an avatar of traditional practice and an ironic commentator on it.

Although Victor had a problematic relationship with his father, as well as with Thomas, part of their trip to Arizona involves Thomas recounting experiences with Victor’s father. This creates a sort of modern storehouse of new tales, set in cities and at national-chain restaurants. Thomas recalls having a vision at age thirteen, causing him to travel more than fifty miles to get to Spokane Falls. Although Thomas expects to have a vision at the falls, it is Victor’s father who finds Thomas on the bridge overpass, feeds him at Denny’s restaurant, and drives him back to the reservation, allowing Thomas to infer that his vision consisted of the understanding that people are here to take care of one another.

This insight and vision provide the essential meaning of the story. Even though Thomas’s mother died in childbirth, and he was raised by his grandmother, he knows the loss that Victor feels in losing even an absent father. Thomas’s money and companionship are freely given to Victor in order to care for him in this literal, physical passage toward adulthood. The story concludes with the two young men back in Washington State. As they part after their long journey, Victor gives one-half of his father’s ashes to Thomas, and both men plan to return the ashes to the river at Spokane Falls, continuing to add chapters to the stories which Thomas has already been telling and retelling.

“Crazy Horse Speaks”

First published: 1993 (collected in Old Shirts and New Skins, 1993)

Type of work: Poem

This work provides a first-person perspective from the point of view of Oglala Lakota mystic Crazy Horse, concerning General Custer, Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull, and issues of race, identity, and mortality.

“Crazy Horse Speaks,” which can be understood as a companion piece or response piece to “Custer Speaks” (also a seven-part poem collected in Old Shirts and New Skins), is the first of a number of instances in Alexie’s literary corpus in which he invokes the character of Crazy Horse, Tashunka Uitko of the Oglala, both for the nobility of his character and for the irony of his destiny. Crazy Horse (c. 1842-1877) seems to appeal to Alexie’s literary consciousness for a number of reasons: his mystical visions as a child and throughout his short life; his success as a warrior at the Battle of the Rosebud and at Little Big Horn; his mostly unrequited love and tribally tragic affair with Black Buffalo Woman; the suspicious circumstances of his bayoneting and death at Fort Robinson. Crazy Horse provides a shorthand representation of tragic vulnerability to which Alexie continued to return in prose and poetry over a decade.

From the perspective of Crazy Horse, the poem considers in seven numbered stanzas the responsibilities and burdens of tribal leadership, whether practiced by Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa Lakota leader) or the adversary George A. Custer or by Crazy Horse himself. In the fourth stanza, Crazy Horse recalls sitting across the fire from Sitting Bull: “We both saw the same thing/ our futures tight and small/ an 8 10 dream/ called the reservation./ We had no alternatives/ but to fight again and again/ live our lives on horseback.”

Alexie’s speculation raises a fascinating question: Did Crazy Horse, and perhaps Sitting Bull as well, perceive the inevitability of Indian military defeat yet continue to wage war with the U.S. cavalry to forestall the ultimate retreat to demarcated reservation land? The closing two-line stanza, however, shows Crazy Horse’s indefatigable spirit, even as it implies that the battle is indeed not over.

“Capital Punishment”

First published: 1996 (collected in The Summer of Black Widows, 1996)

Type of work: Poem

This poem is narrated by a prison cook who is preparing the last meal for an “Indian killer.”

“Capital Punishment” consists of fifty-eight mostly two-line stanzas, punctuated six times with the same parenthetical, single-line comment by the cook: “(I am not a witness).” The cook thus periodically refuses the status of witness yet is clearly a sympathetic observer. As the cook prepares a simple dinner of a baked potato, salad, and glass of water, he wants desperately to make the last meal memorable and appetizing to the unnamed Indian on death row. The ethnic identity of the cook is unknown, but he is sympathetic to the inordinate percentage of minorities on death row. Such political commentary and inference from crime statistics imply a critique of capital punishment, the title of the poem, which becomes clearer as the poem continues.

The cook admits to tasting the food of the condemned prisoner before serving it, as a means to humanize and essentially to share the last meal of this condemned human. As the cook proceeds to imagine the “wispy flames decorating” the prisoner in the process of electrocution, the justification of a society that legally kills people is called into question. The cook glumly admits: “I turn off the kitchen lights/ and sit alone in the dark/ because the whole damn prison dims/ when the chair is switched on.” By turning off the lights and not noticing the power surge during the moments of electrocution, he is able only temporarily to forget the lethal justice that is being meted out elsewhere in the building.

Finally, without considering at all the crime or the circumstances of the crime, the cook reduces his quandary to simple mathematics: “1 death + 1 death = 2 deaths,” and seems to say that state-sanctioned death, whatever seeming justice may be sought, ultimately results in a second death, a second ending of life, a new and more horrible set of disappointments and endings without continuation.

“Defending Walt Whitman”

First published: 1996 (collected in The Summer of Black Widows, 1996)

Type of work: Poem

The nineteenth century American poet is brought into a pickup basketball game on a twentieth century Indian reservation.

“Defending Walt Whitman” provides Alexie with an opportunity to write about reservation basketball, one of his favorite topics, even as he responds to a nineteenth century icon of American poetry who was singularly responsible for breaking away from standard meter, rhyme, and subject matter. Alexie imagines that the bisexual Whitman would be quite charmed with the vision of sweaty, brown young men who are gallant in their own way yet who are initially defined as “twentieth-century warriors who will never kill.”

Alexie is aware of the primacy of basketball among Indian youth throughout the United States, and he is only one of a number of Indian writers who have noticed the phenomenon. Alexie seems unaware that Whitman died in the same year that basketball was invented by James Naismith (1892). Alexie is certainly aware of the powerful dynamic of combining the inclusive, poetic Whitman with the energies and angles of a game of basketball.

“How to Write the Great American Indian Novel”

First published: 1996 (collected in The Summer of Black Widows, 1996)

Type of work: Poem

This work articulates many of the recurrent stereotypes about American Indians in serious fiction.

“How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” is one of Alexie’s most notable and fully realized poems. It has enjoyed a second life as the poem that Seymour Polatkin reads in its entirety at a Seattle book store early in the screenplay and film of The Business of Fancydancing (2003). In two-line stanzas that build toward an inevitable but depressing conclusion, Alexie lists a series of supposed assumptions implicit in the title that are requisite in such a work: “The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably/ from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.” There is a connected cluster of cultural assumptions even in those two lines, but in the poem Alexie does not examine deeply each cultural presupposition. Instead, he heaps additional cultural presuppositions onto the ones just uttered: “If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender/ and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man/ then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.”

Such absolute statements demand response and argument, but Alexie purposefully continues to state new stereotypes that are increasingly disturbing. Such large-swath stereotyping isolates images of Indians as artifacts from a past America, even as it allows Anglo-Americans to develop themselves as Indian wannabes with little real understanding of the patronized culture. Alexie’s conclusion reveals that if all of these stereotypes are perpetuated in such a novel, “all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.”


Sherman Alexie Short Fiction Analysis