Sherman Alexie Alexie, Sherman (Vol. 154) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Business of Fancydancing (poetry and short stories) 1992

I Would Steal Horses (poetry) 1992

First Indian on the Moon (poetry) 1993

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories) 1993

Old Shirts & New Skins (poetry) 1993

Reservation Blues (novel) 1995

Indian Killer (novel) 1996

The Summer of Black Widows (poetry) 1997

Smoke Signals (screenplay) 1998

One Stick Song (poetry and short stories) 2000

The Toughest Indian in the World (short stories)...

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Leslie Ullman (review date summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ullman, Leslie. “Betrayals and Boundaries: A Question of Balance.” Kenyon Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1993): 186–88.

[In the following excerpt, Ullman offers a positive assessment of the equivocal and metaphysical nature of The Business of Fancydancing.]

Sherman Alexie's collection of poems and stories [in The Business of Fancydancing] weaves a curiously soft-blended tapestry of humor, humility, pride, and metaphysical provocation out of the hard realities that make up its material: the tin-shack lives, the alcohol dreams, the bad luck and burlesque disasters, and the self-destructive courage of his characters, all Coeur D'Alene Indians living on the...

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Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 18 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “America at the Crossroads: Life on the Spokane Reservation.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 June 1995): 2, 7.

[In the following favorable review of Reservation Blues, Klinkenborg praises Alexie's illustration of Native American life, his use of dark humor, and his consciousness of audience.]

The Spokane Native American reservation, as the novelist Sherman Alexie imagines it, surrounds Wellpinit Mountain in eastern Washington. “Pine trees blanketed the mountain and the rest of the reservation. The town of Wellpinit sat in a little clearing below the mountain. Cougars strolled through the middle of town; a bear once staggered...

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Denise Low (review date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Low, Denise. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 1 (winter 1996): 123–25.

[In the following review, Low examines Alexie's short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven in relation to postmodernist theory.]

Peter Burger, in Theory of the Avant-Garde, notes that artistic works reflect the time and place, or history, of their cultures, “the unfolding of object and the elaboration of categories are connected” (p. 16). Sherman Alexie's short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven could not have been written during any...

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Jennifer Gillan (essay date March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gillan, Jennifer. “Reservation Home Movies: Sherman Alexie's Poetry.” American Literature 68, no. 1 (March 1996): 91–110.

[In the following essay, Gillan examines Alexie's work and comments on its focus on an anglicized version of American-Indian history and tradition.]

When David Bell, the protagonist in Don DeLillo's Americana, leaves New York, he heads north on a long journey into the “gut of America.”1 He arrives in a small Maine town resembling a sound stage and stays overnight in an old house, “the place where everyone's grandmother lives in television commercials.” He is told a story about a Sioux holy man, Black Knife,...

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Lee Lemon (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lemon, Lee. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. Prairie Schooner 70, no. 1 (spring 1996): 185–86.

[In the following excerpt, Lemon offers a positive assessment of Reservation Blues.]

This is in part a catch-up review because some books that are too good to ignore were, for one reason or another, missed when they came out.

With three '90s novels by Louis Owens (one previously reviewed), works by Sherman Alexie, and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water (also reviewed earlier), we may be witnessing the birth of a subgenre—Native North American Magic Realism. Like its southerly counterpart, the genre is...

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Howard Meredith (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Meredith, Howard. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 446–47.

[In the following review, Meredith examines the incorporeal motifs and the spiritual importance of the reservation in Reservation Blues.]

The art of Sherman Alexie surprises and delights the reader as the dreamlike images and hard-edged realities in Reservation Blues find a center on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Form and content act in unity to provide a captivating story of the tragic sense of life within a Spokane frame of reference. This beautifully written vision of the earth invites participation in specific patterns...

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Sherman Alexie and Doug Marx (interview date 16 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and Doug Marx. “Sherman Alexie: A Reservation of the Mind.”Publishers Weekly (16 September 1996): 39–40.

[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his initiation into literature and his adherence to realism in writing about the American-Indian experience.]

Six years ago, as a 24-year-old student at Washington State University, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, set down his career goals at the insistence of a friend: 1) to publish ten books by age 30; 2) to see a book on the silver screen by 35; and 3) to receive a major literary prize by 40.

With Indian Killer his third prose work, a tragic...

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Madison Smart Bell (review date 17 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Madison Smart. “Native Son: Sherman Alexie Explores the Confusion and Anger Born of Oppression.” Chicago Tribune Books (17 November 1996): sec. 14, p. 3.

[In the following review, Bell explores the rage experienced by the Native-American characters due to the loss of their cultural identity in Indian Killer.]

Over the course of writing several novels, Sherman Alexie has evolved a style that might be called modern Indian magical realism: a melange that combines grindingly realistic portrayals of reservation life today with swift and deft satirical sketches of the rest of modern American society, connected by natural and supernatural events and...

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Sherman Alexie and Erik Himmelsbach (interview date 17 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sherman, Alexie, and Erik Himmelsbach. “Reluctant Spokesman.” Los Angeles Times (17 December 1996): E1, E6.

[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his hesitancy to serve as a representative of the Native-American community at large, his tribe's often bitter attitude toward him, and the film industry's preconceptions about Native Americans.]

Sherman Alexie is ready to play cards with Satan.

The 30-year-old author is hunkered down at the Beverly Prescott, in town to discuss the film rights to his latest novel, Indian Killer, a slyly subversive potboiler about a serial murderer whose actions spark a modern battle of cowboys and...

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Judith Bolton-Fasman (review date 6 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bolton-Fasman, Judith. “One Author's Effort at Myth Killing.” Christian Science Monitor (6 January 1997): 13.

[In the following review, Bolton-Fasman praises Indian Killer for Alexie's skillful character development and his blunt treatment of racism in America.]

Sherman Alexie is a native American who discounts that designation as a “guilty white liberal term”; he prefers to be called Indian. Indian Killer is his second novel and it is the literary thriller at its best.

Alexie transforms the genre into a sharp, multilayered format that enables him to engage his readers on a number of levels. It's a terrifically readable...

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Robert L. Berner (review date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berner, Robert L. Review of The Summer of Black Widows, by Sherman Alexie. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 430–31.

[In the following review, Berner offers a positive assessment of The Summer of Black Widows, commenting favorably on Alexie's portrayal of the true Native-American cultural experience and his use of dark satire.]

In Sherman Alexie's title poem, black widow spiders, appearing on the Spokane reservation in miraculous numbers, become a metaphor for stories. The summer is full of spiders and thus rich in stories, and even after the spiders disappear, their evidence is found in every corner of a place that remains rich in...

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Peter Donahue (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Donahue, Peter. “New Warriors, New Legends: Basketball in Three Native American Works of Fiction.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 44–48, 51–55, 57–60.

[In the following excerpt, Donahue discusses the significance of basketball in Native-American culture as evidenced in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues.]

In basketball, we find enough reasons to believe in God …

—Sherman Alexie.1

… In the past two decades, basketball has become an obsession on many American Indian reservations....

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Ron McFarland (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McFarland, Ron. “‘Another Kind of Violence’: Sherman Alexie's Poems.” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (spring 1997): 252–55, 257–64.

[In the following excerpt, McFarland examines the polemic nature of Alexie's writing and his unique poetic form.]

When a new poet [Sherman Alexie] comes on the scene, it is “both fitting and proper” to identify him or her, not so much with the intention of fixing and formulating with a phrase, but with the intention of providing a point of departure or a common ground. As to what constitutes an identity as a “Native American poet,” I would suggest that it has most to do with how the poet, in this case...

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Sherman Alexie and John Purdy (interview date 4 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and John Purdy. “Crossroads: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie.” Studies in Native American Literature 9, no. 4 (winter 1997): 1–18.

[In the following interview, conducted on October 4, 1997, Alexie discusses his role in the film Smoke Signals, his desire to be universally accessible, his views on publication, and his opinion of modern American-Indian writers.]

This conversation took place on 4 October 1997, a rainy, early autumn morning in an east Seattle café near Sherman Alexie's home. It is an interesting neighborhood, for it sits on a clearly demarcated boundary: on one side, the intercity struggle for survival—economic...

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Michael Gorra (review date 5 March 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gorra, Michael. “Hopeless Warriors.” London Review of Books 28, no. 9 (5 March 1998): 1.

[In the following review, Gorra offers a negative assessment of Reservation Blues, focusing on Alexie's failure to blend humor with drama and his overly didactic tone.]

In Indian Killer, Sherman Alexie's second novel, two members of the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington in Seattle exchange banalities in a parking lot:

‘Dr Mather!’ said the white man as he approached. ‘Dr Mather, it's me. It's Dr Faulkner.’

‘Good evening, Dr Faulkner....

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Sherman Alexie and Dennis West and Joan M. West (interview date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alexie, Sherman, and Dennis West and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23, no. 4 (fall 1998): 29–32.

[In the following interview, Alexie discusses his screenplay for the film Smoke Signals and comments on a variety of topics including stereotypical film portrayals of American Indians, the autobiographical elements of the movie, and the film's motif of fatherlessness.]

[Cineaste:] You have called your screenplay [Smoke Signals] “groundbreaking” because of its portrayal of Indians. Why?

[Alexie:] Well, it's a very basic story, a road trip/buddy movie...

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Dan Georgakas (review date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Georgakas, Dan. Review of Smoke Signals, by Sherman Alexie. Cineaste 23, no. 4 (fall 1998): 28.

[In the following review, Georgakas offers a positive assessment of Smoke Signals, asserting that Alexie displays a unique ability to break from the traditional portrayal of modern American-Indian culture in film.]

Every few years or so, press kits arrive at the offices of film magazines announcing that a forthcoming film about Native Americans decisively breaks with the stereotypes of the past. Smoke Signals is the latest film to advertise itself so, but, unlike most of its predecessors, Smoke Signals delivers on its promises. A prime...

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Jonathan Levi (review date 18 June 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Nothing But Net.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 June 2000): 4.

[In the following review, Levi explores the diversity of Alexie's American-Indian characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]

What is an Indian?” Sherman Alexie asks in his latest collection of stories, The Toughest Indian in the World. Is it the college student of the story “One Good Man,” who boasts of long black hair and skin dark as a pecan? “I'd grown up on my reservation with my tribe. I understood most of the Spokane language, though I'd always spoken it like a Jesuit priest. Hell, I'd been in three car wrecks! And most importantly, every...

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Jonathan Penner (review date 9 July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Penner, Jonathan. “Full Blooded.” Washington Post Book World (9 July 2000): 7.

[In the following review, Penner comments on Alexie's exploration of the struggle for American-Indian cultural identity as experienced by the characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]

The protagonists of these nine stories [in The Toughest Indian in the World] are all proud to be Indians but hardly comfortable, or even quite sure what it means. “What is an Indian?” is a question asked over and over, either implicitly or in just those words.

What indeed? These aren't Hemingway's Indians, drunks freezing to death at the roadside. Sherman Alexie's...

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Joyce Carol Oates (review date 20 July 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Haunted by Salmon.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 12 (20 July 2000): 20.

[In the following review, Oates explores the search for ethnicity undertaken by the characters in The Toughest Indian in the World.]

What is an Indian? runs through Sherman Alexie's second collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian in the World, like a demented, demanding mantra. In these nine stories, irony is sounded like the tribal drums of the ghost musicians of the story “Saint Junior” that haunt the Spokane Indian Reservation. (“Irony, a hallmark of the contemporary indigenous American.”) Alexie, best known for his novels...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cline, Lynn. “About Sherman Alexie.” Ploughshares 26, no. 4 (winter 2000): 197–202.

Cline offers an overview of the life and career of Sherman Alexie.


Alessio, Carolyn. “Sherman Alexie's Characters Struggle to Establish Their Identities On and Off the Reservation.” Chicago Tribune (4 June 2000): 5.

Alessio offers a positive assessment of The Toughest Indian in the World.

Bankston, Carl L., III. “Weaving the Line of the Spirit.” Bloomsbury Review 12, no. 6 (September 1992): 7.

Bankston discusses the...

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