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.