Sherman Alexie 1966-
Native American poet, short-story writer, novelist, and screenwriter. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 96) and Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 154).
The following entry provides criticism on Alexie's works from 1993 through 2001.
Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native American writers of his generation. His works reflect the debilitating influence of alcoholism and poverty that pervade life on the reservation. With dark humor and ironic wit, Alexie boldly portrays the harsh realities of reservation life and gives voice to the anger that results from media distortion of Native American culture.
Alexie was born October 7, 1966, and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Diagnosed at birth with hydrocephalus, Alexie was not expected to survive infancy. He defied early pessimistic assessments, however, not only surviving cranial surgery at the age of six months, but also displaying unusually keen cognitive abilities that led him to learn to read by the age of two. Alexie subsequently endured a challenging childhood. With his advanced intellect and enlarged skull, he became the target of snubs and teasing by other children. His home life offered little comfort or shelter. His father was an absentee alcoholic; his mother worked as both a trading-post clerk and a quilt maker to support a family of eight. Finding solace in books and education, Alexie became a dedicated student. When it became clear that the school in Wellpinit could not provide the credits he needed to attend college, Alexie transferred to a predominantly white high school thirty miles from the reservation. There, he found acceptance among classmates and became class president, captain of the basketball team, and a member of the debate team. When he graduated with honors in 1985, he received a scholarship to Gonzaga University, where he planned to pursue a pre-med program. During his transition to this new environment, Alexie began to drink heavily to address his growing feelings of racial alienation and the gradual recognition that he didn't seem cut out for a career in medicine. This period of alcohol abuse greatly influenced the themes of Alexie's early writing. Eventually, he addressed his alcohol addiction and began attending Washington State University, where a poetry class taught by Alex Kuo led him to new career aspirations as a writer. He graduated in 1991 and during the following year published the poetry collection I Would Steal Horses and the poetry and short story collection The Business of Fancydancing, which was named the 1992 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Two additional volumes of poetry followed in 1993, as did his collection of short fiction, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. In 1995 Alexie published his first novel, Reservation Blues. Several years later, having published yet another novel and a fifth collection of poetry, Alexie turned to film as a genre, writing the screenplay for the widely acclaimed Smoke Signals. The film, which was adapted from portions of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival's audience award. Alexie has won numerous awards, including a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and was named one of the twenty best young American novelists by Granta and The New Yorker. While continuing to write and pursuing a private life in Seattle with his Native American wife, Diane, and their son, Joseph, Alexie has also remained active in the Native American community, with service on the Presidential Panel for the National Dialogue on Race and on the board of directors for the American Indian College Fund.
In all genres in which he writes, Alexie explores themes of despair, poverty, alcoholism, and racial anger—all circumstances that pervade the daily lives of Native Americans. In his early collection of poetry and short fiction, The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie portrays the banal realities of modern reservation life. He employs a type of magic realism in which historical and fictional characters—such as Crazy Horse and Buffalo Bill—are awkwardly placed in modern-day situations. His contemporary Native American characters appear throughout the stories and poetic narratives, drinking, playing basketball, and sometimes committing petty crimes. Throughout his poetry and fiction, Alexie juxtaposes traditional media stereotypes of Native Americans with the contemporary reality of life on economically disadvantaged reservations. Such a theme recurrs in his poetry collections I Would Steal Horses, First Indian on the Moon (1993), Old Shirts & New Skins (1993), and The Summer of Black Widows (1997). In writing unflinchingly of hardships experienced on the reservation, and the loss of Native American ethnicity, Alexie captures the sense of powerlessness that results from a daily struggle for physical and emotional survival and the fight to recover a cultural identity robbed by generations of discrimination and misrepresentation.
Alexie's novels and short story collections address similar themes with the same dark humor that permeates his poetry. In the novel Reservation Blues, Alexie explores the successes and failures of a Native American rock band with lofty dreams. He experiments with the mystery genre in Indian Killer (1996), a novel that features an American Indian character, adopted by white parents, who is suspected of having participated in a series of murders. While continuing to produce poetry and short fiction, Alexie has also determined to add more filmmaking to his credits. In 2002 he wrote and directed the film, The Business of Fancydancing, based on his publication of the same name.
Alexie has received the praise of critics and reviewers from the beginning of his career, and his work is almost universally characterized as revolutionary, bold, and realistically reflective for its portrayal of the Native American experience in resistance to contemporary media conceptualizations of the American Indian. Critics laud his use of dark satire and his ability to juxtapose humor with tragedy, historical figures with modern settings, and real people with fictitious characters. Some reviewers have termed Alexie's realism harsh or racist, citing its apparent anger against Anglo-American culture. Even those who have offered praise for his work, such as critic Louis Owens, occasionally suggest that Alexie's fiction “too often simply reinforces all of the stereotypes desired by white readers.” Others admire his refusal to submit to the idealistic stereotypes forced upon Native Americans and note that he embraces many aspects of mainstream American culture in his writing. In terms of structure, Alexie's innovative poetic and narrative forms have sometimes been called truncated or underdeveloped, but his proponents hold that his unique style complements his themes and augments his subtle satiric undertones. Writing in The Bloomsbury Review, critic Carl L. Bankston III calls Alexie's poems “simultaneously documentaries of tribal existence and revelations of the spirit and inner significance of that existence.” In his review of The Business of Fancydancing, Bankston writes, “The most impressive quality of Alexie's writing is his ability to let poetry appear unexpectedly from … themes of everyday life in an unadorned, conversational idiom.”