illustrated portrait of American Indian author Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

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Alex Kuo (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Introduction," in The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems by Sherman Alexie, Hanging Loose Press, 1992, p. v.

[In the essay below, Kuo describes the wide range of cultural references in Alexie's prose and verse.]

Sherman Alexie's territory, as he describes in these forty poems and five stories [in The Business of Fancydancing], ranges from the All-Indian Six-Foot-And-Under Basketball Tournament to ESPN to the politics of geography and family to powwows to Indians "not drinking enough." Alexie's work has escaped the pervasive influence of writing workshops, academic institutions and their subsidized intellect, and has instead focused on reservation and border realities in his eastern section of Washington state.

Central to this landscape inhabited by family, friends, and a wild coterie of reservation cops, seers, Buffalo Bills, Crazy Horses, and of course, fancydancers, is the absence of self-indulgence. The characters in Alexie's work have actual identities whose faces have shadows that suggest other histories. The visionary Seymour and Simon, for example, travel forward and backward in time with dreams that sustain the narrator—often, they are Crazy Horse dreams and do not work, but sometimes they do, in a fancydance that suggests an existence beyond the survival of life's pain and contradictions.

Throughout this collection, there is an emphasis on balancing carefully, and a willingness to forgive, as in the subsistence forays into the sestina in "Spokane Tribal Celebration, September, 1987," and "The Business of Fancydancing." The history these stories and poems remember goes beyond the individual; it is the healing that attends the collective space and distance of both writer and reader, which will hopefully "make everything work / so everyone can fly again." Here, on a long jumpshot arcing into the distance, there is enough light to push back the darkness for several generations to come.


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Sherman Alexie 1966–

Spokane/Coeur d'Alene poet, short story writer, and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Alexie's career through 1995. See also Sherman Alexie Criticism (Volume 154) and Sherman Alexie Poetry Criticism.

Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, is one of the most prominent Native American writers of his generation. In his critically acclaimed poetry and fiction, he tells of the hardships and joys of contemporary life on an Indian reservation. Alexie's works are celebrated for their detailed descriptions of the psychology and environment of the reservation; the humor and wit that are displayed in the face of the intense poverty and the ravages of alcohol abuse that are part of reservation life; and their broad, universal messages of hope and perseverance.

Biographical Information

Born in 1966 on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, Alexie was raised in an environment often characterized by depression, poverty, and alcohol abuse. Alexie's mother supported the family by selling her hand-sewn quilts and working at the Wellpinit Trading Post, while his father, an alcoholic, was often absent from the house. Alexie was an exemplary student in elementary school—he read every book in the Wellpinit school library—and in high school. In 1985 he was admitted to Gonzaga University in Spokane. There, under intense pressure to succeed, he began abusing alcohol. Eventually he transferred to Washington State University and began writing poetry and short fiction. A selection of his work was published in Hanging Loose magazine in 1990. This early success provided Alexie with the will and incentive to quit drinking and to devote himself to building a career as a writer. In 1991 Alexie was awarded a Washington State Arts Commission poetry fellowship, and in 1992 he won a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He continues to live on the Spokane Reservation in...

(This entire section contains 880 words.)

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Wellpinit, Washington. Reflecting on his life experiences, Alexie asserted inThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993): "[Indians] have a way of surviving. But it's almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It's the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn't take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins."

Major Works

Alexie's debut collection of poetry and short fiction, TheBusiness of Fancydancing (1992), grew out of the first writing workshop Alexie attended at Washington State University. Focusing on "Crazy Horse dreams"—a metaphor for aspirations, either far-fetched or close-at-hand, that succeed or fail without any apparent logic—The Business of Fancydancing introduces a broad range of characters, many of whom have continued to appear throughout Alexie's prose and verse. Typically, these characters evoke the despair, poverty, and alcoholism that often pervade the lives of Native Americans on reservations. Personalities like Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Seymour, Junior Polatkin, Lester FallsApart, and Victor—who engage in reservation basketball tournaments, fist fights, and visits to the local tavern—developed into the characters that populate such later works as The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues (1995). The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection of short stories with frequent autobiographical overtones, takes survival and forgiveness as its major themes. Alexie explores these issues both on the reservation and in Anglo-American-dominated Spokane. Similarly, Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues, studies the life experiences of Native Americans. The novel describes the successes and failures of "Coyote Springs," an all-Indian rock-and-roll band, as its members travel and perform concerts with a guitar that belonged to legendary blues musician Robert Johnson. Reservation Blues extends Alexie's literary use of the locale and inhabitants of the Spokane reservation, reiterating his focus on the conditions of life on the reservation and the hardships faced by many Native Americans. His most recent novel, Indian Killer (1996), is set in the Pacific Northwest and is, in part, a mystery about a killer who scalps his victims. Alexie has also published three books of poetry, I Would Steal Horses (1992), First Indian on the Moon (1993), and Old Shirts & New Skins (1993). Like Alexie's fiction, these collections evoke sadness and indignation but leave the reader with a sense of respect and compassion for characters who are in seemingly hopeless situations. Involved with crime, alcohol, or drugs, they struggle to survive the constant battering of their minds, bodies and spirits by white American society and by their own self-hatred and sense of powerlessness.

Critical Reception

Alexie has won a strong following for his works and is recognized as a major emerging literary voice. He is especially noted for his keen insights into the plight of Native Americans living on reservations. In discussing The Business of Fancydancing, Andrea-Bess Baxter described Alexie's work as "at once painful and compelling yet somehow balanced with humor and hope." Leslie Marmon Silko, referring to The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, found Alexie's writing to "dazzle with wicked humor, lean, fresh language, and deep affection for his characters." Alexie's work has also garnered attention for its descriptive qualities and its intense connection to life on an Indian reservation. According to Silko in an essay on Reservation Blues, "the power of his writing rises out of the Spokane River and the Spokane earth." She concluded, "on this big Indian reservation we call 'the United States,' Sherman Alexie is one of the best writers we have."

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 February 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Old Shirts & New Skins, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 5, February 1, 1993, p. 87.

[In the following review of Old Shirts & New Skins, the critic praises Alexie's verse for "capturing the full range of modern Native [American] experience."]

[In Old Shirts and New Skins, Alexie] emerges as a Native poet of the first order. He captures the full range of modern Native experience, writing both with anger and with great affection and humor. Detailing the continuing deprivation and colonialism, the poet pointedly asks, "Am I the garbageman of your dreams?" and defines Native "economics": "risk" is playing poker with cash and then passing out at powwow. Focusing on the Leonard Peltier case, Alexie exposes the ineffectualness of both white Indian-lovers and some Native leaders in "The Marlon Brando Memorial Swimming Pool": "Peltier goes blind in Leavenworth … / and Brando sits, fat and naked, by the Pacific ocean. There was never / any water in the damn thing." General Custer is allowed to give an accounting of himself, as Alexie links genocide of America's indigenous peoples with Vietnam, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and other acts of warfare and destruction. Alexie writes comfortably in a variety of styles. Many of the poems turn on grim irony, putting the author himself in the traditional role of the trickster. Adrian Louis provides a powerful foreword, and Elizabeth Woody's moody illustrations add to the volume's impact.

Principal Works

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I Would Steal Horses (poetry) 1992The Business of Fancydancing (short stories and poetry) 1992First Indian on the Moon (poetry) 1993The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (short stories) 1993Old Shirts & New Skins (poetry) 1993Reservation Blues (novel) 1995Indian Killer (novel) 1996

The New Yorker (essay date 10 May 1993)

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SOURCE: "Fancydancer," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIX, No. 12, May 10, 1993, pp. 38-40.

[In the following essay, the critic explores the impact of Alexie's life experiences on his literary works.]

Why the nondescript Northwestern city of Spokane was chosen as the site of the 1974 World's Fair is difficult to understand. The "attractions" are almost gone now, except for one that was there all along. Perhaps Expo '74's greatest legacy, or perhaps its only one, was to reveal a roaring stretch of the Spokane River by tearing down an inner-city rail yard that had obscured it from view for more than seventy years.

For centuries, the falls were a spiritual center for the Spokane, a nomadic American Indian tribe whose name means "children of the sun." The Spokane came here in the spring from their winter villages to camp in tepees by the riverbank, lured by the salmon that once ran from the Pacific up the Columbia River into this river. The tribe's first rite of spring was to fast and don beaded, feathered regalia for ceremonial dances to thank the Great Spirit for the salmon, their summer sustenance and their currency of sorts when they began to trade with the suapi, Spokane for "white man."

About a century ago, the suapi, in the form of the American government, sent the Spokane tribe upstream to a reservation sixty miles northwest of the city, in Wellpinit. After the Second World War, when the Indian war veterans came home to Wellpinit, they "modernized" their traditional dancing to reflect more of what they'd seen in the wider world. "Fancydancing" was the name they gave to the flashier, more improvisational version of their dance.

The Haleposey clan, pronounced roughly "Alepsie," was given a new name, too, but well before the Second World War. Russian fur traders who stopped by Wellpinit found the name indecipherable and rechristened the clan "Alexie" in their ledgers. Almost every afternoon, Sherman Alexie, twenty-six, one of the youngest generation of the Haleposey descendants, returns to the sacred site of his ancestors, where he shoots hoops on the basketball courts of the Spokane Y.M.C.A. It's how he caps off a morning spent at his kitchen table doing his own version of "fancydancing," which is the name he has given to his writing. This writing-and-basket-ball routine has gone on for the past five years, and so far it has spawned three small-press books, a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and, this past January, a six-figure, two-book contract for a short-story collection and a novel from Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press. "Salmon-travelling," evoking the salmon's sometimes bloody fight upstream, hurling itself over falls and rocks to spawn, is a word one finds sprinkled through Alexie's writing. It is also a word that describes Alexie's own journey. Alexie's obstacles were the joint inheritance of poverty and alcoholism. His mother supported the family by working at the Wellpinit Trading Post or selling quilts she sewed during the long evenings when her husband was drinking.

Alexie shut out this world by devouring books. By the time he was in fifth grade, he'd read the entire Wellpinit school library, auto-repair manuals included. At twelve, he announced to his family that he was going to Reardan High School, thirty-two miles down the road from the reservation. He started there in eighth grade.

Alexie isn't quite sure what drove him to join every possible club and become the captain of the school's basketball team—called, to his family's amusement, the Reardan Indians. Nonetheless, his overachieving gained him admittance to the Jesuit Gonzaga University, in Spokane. Gonzaga had a derailing effect on Alexie, who until that point had never tasted alcohol. There, he discovered its numbing effect, and, after his long struggle to get to college, it soothed his increasing terror about what could or should come next. Rescue was provided by his high-school girlfriend, who was going off to Washington State University. Alexie transferred there with her after two years at Gonzaga. Although he continued to drink uncontrollably, he also began to write.

In 1989, from Washington State, he sent a few poems and short stories to Hanging Loose magazine, a Brooklyn-based literary biannual he'd seen while he was hanging around the university's library. He was first published in the magazine in 1990, and later a poetry-and-short-story collection, The Business of Fancydancing, was published by the ancillary Hanging Loose Press.

Until 1992, Alexie had never been east of Missoula, Montana, but now sixty readings have taken him, and his sense of guilt and wonder, all over America. "There were as many opportunities for me to fail as to succeed," he says. "I know a hundred other stories of people on my reservation who failed. I'm amazed that I've made it, and feel guilty because I've left some people behind. Why do doors keep swinging open at the right time?" he asks. The answer must be all that fancydancing.

His latest and longest jump shot has been onto the national literary scene. Grove/Atlantic Monthly Press has made The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven its lead book for the fall. Alexie recently came to New York for a reading at New York University's Loeb Student Center. He wore a special mugger's wallet he'd invented for the trip, and saw his first Broadway show. He met his agent and his publisher, but not for drinks: he won the struggle against drinking three years ago. When Indians succeed in the suapi world, Alexie says, "we can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees."

Further Reading

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Bankston, Carl L., III. "Weaving the Line of the Spirit." The Bloomsbury Review 12, No. 6 (September 1992): 7.

Discusses characterization in The Business of Fancydancing, finding that Alexie's poetry appears "unexpectedly" from the themes of everyday life.

Lambert, Pam. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. People Weekly 43, No. 18 (8 May 1995): 35.

Favorable assessment of Reservation Blues, praising the way Alexie "explores the place where dreams and down-and-dirty reality collide."

Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. Publishers Weekly 242, No. 18 (1 May 1995): 42-3.

Laudatory assessment of Reservation Blues, stating that the novel is "hilarious but poignant" and "filled with enchantments yet dead-on accurate with regard to modern reservation life."

Reardon, Patrick T. "Life on the Reservation Yields Never-Ending Losses." The Chicago Tribune (27 September 1993): 3.

Argues that The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is comparable in scope and significance to Richard Wright's Native Son.

Roraback, Dick. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 November 1993): 6.

Praises Alexie's sense of humor and depth of theme in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Sowd, David. Review of Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie. Library Journal 120, No. 10 (1 June 1995): 158.

Brief review of Reservation Blues, focusing on the novel's principal theme: the "tragedy of reservation life."

Throm, Lindsay. Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. Booklist 90, No. 1 (1 September 1993): 31.

Praises The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven for its powerful narrative voice.

Sybil S. Steinberg (review date 19 July 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 29, July 19, 1993, p. 235.

[In the following review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the critic lauds Alexie's short stories as exemplary products of the author's potent imagination.]

Known primarily as a poet, [Sherman] Alexie (Old Shirts and New Skins), a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, offers [in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven] 22 extremely fine short stories, all set on or around the Spokane reservation in Washington state. Characters flow from one tale to the next; many involve Victor, who grows from a small child watching relatives fight during a New Year's Eve party ("Every Little Hurricane") to a dissolute man sitting on his broken-down porch with a friend, watching life pass him by ("The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn't Flash Red Anymore"). The author depicts with fierce determination all the elements of modern Native American life, from basketball and alcoholism to powwows and the unexplained deaths of insignificant people. Humor and tragedy exist side by side, and stories often jump back and forth in time and space, recounting two narratives that ultimately prove to be skeins of the same tale. Alexie writes with simplicity and forthrightness, allowing the power in his stories to creep up slowly on the reader. He captures the reservation's strong sense of community and attitude of hope tinged with realism as its inhabitants determine to persevere despite the odds. In "Imagining the Reservation" (a title that evokes John Lennon's song "Imagine") he writes, "Survival = Anger × Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation"—a weapon this author wields with potent authority.

Andrea-Bess Baxter (review date August 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of The Business of Fancydancing, in Western American Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, August, 1993, pp. 161-62.

[Below, Baxter comments on the themes of isolation and alienation in The Business of Fancydancing.]

Sherman Alexie's remarkable debut, The Business of Fancydancing, is an outstanding collection of poetry, prose, vignettes and epigrams that will surely launch him firmly into the Native American literature scene.

A spontaneous combustion propels the reader into the complex density of the modern Indian world, on and off the reservation, at once painful and compelling yet somehow balanced with humor and hope. Alexie's razor-sharp irony races toward unexpected twists and turns.

His stark portraits are vivid and disturbing: house fires, sin and forgiveness, Crazy Horse dreams (the kind that don't come true), Buffalo Bill opening a pawn shop, pow wows and fancydancers like Vernon WildShoe (Elvis in braids), Crazy Horse just back from Vietnam in the Breakaway Bar, Lester FallsApart translating the directions on a commodity can of soup, Chief Victor, two hundred winter beers wide, still sinking jump shots from thirty feet and beyond.

Alexie grew up in Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian reservation. He speaks of his connections to and isolation within, not only white America, but his own tribe. His writing hits hard because it comes directly out of his own experiences. Comic relief provides an element of surprise. And throughout we encounter the theme of forgiveness. In "Pow Wow" we read of the usual hustle and bustle, humorous incidents and the inevitable encounters with whites, all taking place in the present and past. The poem ends:

      still, Indians have a way of forgiving anything       a little but more and more it's memory lasting longer       and longer like uranium just beginning a half-life.

The threads of isolation and alienation that weave through these stories all sum up what Gerald Vizenor terms the "cultural schizophrenic," who has the impossible task of living in two worlds, always questioning where he or she belongs. In "Distances" we are told that "There is nothing as white as the white girl an Indian boy loves." And "I do not speak my native tongue. Except that is, for the dirty words. I can tell you what I think of you in two languages."

Sherman Alexie's powerful voice exemplifies how imagination and the power of words, native or not, can be the most potent weapon of all. His writing challenges the reader to listen and listen well and to confront an honest portrait of the contemporary Indian world, a world where, all too often, "suddenly, nothing happens." It is exactly this kind of truthfulness and insight that leads to triumph in battle. The Business of Fancydancing is guaranteed to provoke, amaze and remove those rose-colored glasses from idealistic non-Indians by revealing the hard realities of the present-day Native American world.

Brian Schneider (review date Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 237-38.

[In the following review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Schneider briefly examines Alexie's narrative voice.]

Each of the twenty-two stories in Sherman Alexie's collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven examines the modern problems and contradictions of reservation life. Most of the stories are situated on the Spokane Indian Reservation, which Alexie's lyrical voice describes through stories that examine not only the real problems of alcoholism or unemployment but also happier moments: romance, basketball, and dancing. Alexie's voice is strongest when the real problems collide with the lighter moments—in these instances his prose is brutally honest and depicts the horrible strains of poverty, alcoholism, and violence—but also shows the flip side: the tribe continues to exist in its language, myth, and culture (Alexie's own stories) even in the face of what at times seem like insurmountable odds.

The collection is loosely linked through Alexie's narrative voice, a voice that resonates whether operating in first or third person with a passion that sees the irony in the flower power movement's co-opting of mostly American Indian values ("Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock") and captures the personal and national feelings of alienation American Indians face as their numbers dwindle, but also the sense of duty and honor they hold for one another ("This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"). Alexie's remarkable collection deserves a wide audience because of his original narrative voice, which mixes mythmaking with lyrical prose and captures the nation-within-a-nation status of American Indians and the contradictions such a status produces, and more importantly, the survival of a people through mythmaking rooted in their everyday lives.

Reynolds Price (review date 17 October 1993)

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SOURCE: "One Indian Doesn't Tell Another," in The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1993, pp. 15-16.

[Below, Price commends Alexie's ability to portray the sufferings of Native Americans but suggests that the author's rapid publication of his work may be affecting its quality.]

Sherman Alexie was born in 1966. Victor, the central character and sometime narrator of at least half of these 22 short stories [in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven], is the same age. Like Mr. Alexie, Victor is a member of the Spokane Indian tribe and continues to live in the state of Washington. But where Victor has no diversions more effective than alcohol from the bleakness of his reservation life, Sherman Alexie has a striking lyric power to lament and praise that same crucial strain of modern American life—the oldest and most unendingly punished strain, the Native American, as it's been transformed for many Indians through a long five centuries of brutal reduction to powerlessness and its lethal companions: alcoholism, malnutrition and suicidal self-loathing.

There are three stories here that could stand in any collection of excellence—"The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" and "Witnesses, Secret and Not."

Young as he is, though, Mr. Alexie has employed his gift briskly. The present volume is his first full-length work of fiction, but last year he published The Business of Fancydancing, a widely praised collection of poems and sketches, and there are earlier collections of poetry, Old Shirts & New Skins, I Would Steal Horses and First Indian on the Moon. Though the themes, the tones of voice and the names of characters are often identical in the two most recent volumes, The Business of Fancydancing consists mostly of verse—laconic and grim but often humorous free-verse responses to the same world that underlies all Mr. Alexie's work.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is entirely in prose, its tales ranging in length from fewer than five pages to more than 10. Each part is named promisingly—the title piece is a good example—yet a majority of the pieces quickly dispense with the common reader's expectations of short narrative. There is very little plot in any of them—plot in the sense of consecutive action with emotional outcome. Little human conflict is witnessed in present time; almost no attention is paid to whatever visible world surrounds the vocal line of narration, though there are frequent generic references to HUD housing, crowded saloons and powwows enriched by the omnipresent Indian fry bread. With those sparse hints, the reader is expected to perform a number of jobs that are generally assumed by the writer. Anyone impelled to enter Mr. Alexie's world must conspire with the sound of his fictional voices to create a new world, to people it and then to feel along with a set of characters about whom we're told little more than their names and a few slender facts about their age and health.

Knowledge of the immensely imposing and varied body of recent fiction by American Indians—from N. Scott Momaday and James Welch to Leslie Marmon Silko—will suggest that there's nothing especially typical of Native Americans in Mr. Alexie's limited angle of vision and in the kinds of dense filters he interposes between the reader and the world implied. In a terse three sentences in his beautiful closing story, however, the narrator seems to claim otherwise. He says: "One Indian doesn't tell another what to do. We just watch things happen and then make comments. It's all about reaction as opposed to action."

However unpromising a creed that would seem to be for a fiction writer who hopes to be read by a culturally assorted audience, its offhand claim defines the motive force of these pieces. The great surprise is that given such narrow bounds, Mr. Alexie's strength proves sufficient to compel clear attention through sizable lengths of first-person voice (the hardest voice to make compelling, given all our dread of the first-person bore; and most of Mr. Alexie's voices resemble one another closely). The skills by which he lures us on through the quickly familiar atmosphere are a stark lucidity of purpose and an extreme simplicity of cast and action (there are seldom more than two characters present in any scene). Above all, he lures us with a live and unremitting lyric energy in the fast-moving, occasionally surreal and surprisingly comic language of his progress.

Passages as lively as the following are not infrequent, and go a good way toward lifting the stingy minimalist gloom that might otherwise sink more of these sketches than the two or three that actually founder:

In the outside world, a person can be a hero one second and nobody the next. Think about it. Do white people remember the names of those guys who dove into that icy river to rescue passengers from that plane wreck a few years back? Hell, white people don't even remember the names of dogs who save entire families from burning up in house fires by barking.

However exhilarating such vitality proves to be throughout the volume, a sympathetic reader may finally dwell on a serious question—and it's a question that arises in the presence of any writer who not only is very young but who is also publishing rapidly. Has Sherman Alexie moved too fast for his present strength? A youthful prodigy is far scarcer in narrative writing than in any other art. There have been great poems from teenagers, great pieces of music and admirable paintings; but there's no sizable body of impressive fiction by any writer much under 30. The power to dredge up useful narrative lumber from the packed unconscious mostly requires long years of mute waiting while the mind flows over and reshapes its memories into public objects of arresting interest and wide utility.

Despite his extraordinary powers, in the quick succession of two books in two years Sherman Alexie has plumbed a number of obsessive themes and relationships as deeply as they permit; and moments of gray, unrevealing monotony are too common. Though no one can tell a writer—least of all a young one—where to look and how to see, the reader who admires Mr. Alexie's plentiful moments of startling freshness and his risky dives into unmapped waters can wish for him now that he discovers a new and merciful rhythm that will let him find new eyes, new sights and patterns in a wider world, and a battery of keener voices for launching his urgent knowledge toward us.

Anne Goodwin Sides (review date 17 October 1993)

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SOURCE: "Making It Against the Odds," in Book World—The Washington Post, October 17, 1993, p. 6.

[In the following review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sides examines how Alexie uses storytelling to help rescue his tribe and his culture from oblivion.]

Reading Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is like leaning out the side window of a speeding car, watching the world slip in and out of focus faster than you can sort the future from the present from the past. The world, in this case, is an American Indian reservation. Keeping time like the staccato thumping of a nail stuck in a tire are drumbeats, blaring televisions, dancing, fighting, nightmares, visions and the small explosions of beer bottles thrown from a car driving in no particular direction.

Maybe from all that thumping, the narrators of most of the 22 stories in The Lone Ranger are insomniacs. One of them, Victor, is at least part Sherman Alexie. Both grew up on the reservation for the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribe, a government ghetto where dogs won't eat the "commodity" (government-issue) beef and cheese, but people do. That and potatoes, every day. Victor's sisters save a few quarters to buy food coloring to dye the potatoes red, green and blue, helping them imagine that the starchy whiteness is anything else. There are days when Victor's family is so hungry they fantasize eating "oranges, Pepsi-Cola, chocolate, deer jerky." Life in this American Soweto is so suffocating that drinking Sterno or sniffing rubber cement and gas fumes is a rite of passage as innocent as a child's first kiss. "I remember my brother stretched out over the lawnmower, his mouth pressed tightly to the mouth of the gas tank … everything underwater … Stare up at the surface, sunlight filtered through water like fingers, like a hand filled with the promise of love and oxygen."

And there are the constant humiliations Indians suffer off the "rez": A couple is pulled over for no reason by a cop who extorts money. A young man with dark skin and long black hair is watched like a thief for walking into a 7-11 to buy a Creamsicle.

The Lone Ranger is a collage of dreams, journal entries, quotes from other native writers, archival letters, fictional Kafkaesque court transcripts, tribal newspaper reports, drug trips, and basketball games. In Alexie's fiction, basketball is a weapon and therapy for negotiating the straits between an impoverished Indian world and a suspicious, secret-coded white one. Basketball is also a white man's invention that's been appropriated as the reservation game every Indian plays.

In real life, according to recent articles about him, Sherman Alexie begins his day writing at the kitchen table and rewards himself with a sweaty game on the Spokane YMCA court after lunch. It's a ritual that may have saved his life. Three years ago, when the small literary journal Hanging Loose first published a few of Alexie's unsolicited poems and short stories, he stopped drinking. His writing only got better. At 26, he has already published a collection of short stories and poetry, The Business of Fancydancing; and two books of poetry. Atlantic Monthly Press reportedly offered Alexie a six-figure contract for two more books: this one and a novel to follow.

In the title story, the narrator admires a white basketball player who "could play … Indian ball fast and loose." The author himself has parlayed his gift for writing poetry into fast, loose prose. At intervals, Alexie so loses himself in his imagery that his prose unravels into a succession of modern sonnets with jarring, sardonic codas. The story "Indian Education" is structured like a diary documenting the first seven years of Victor, the protagonist, at school on the reservation and the next five years at the white farm-town high school. In second grade, the missionary teacher gives the class a spelling test. But she singles Victor out, giving him a test for junior-high students. When he gets all the answers right, she crumples up the paper and makes him eat it. "You'll learn respect," she says, mocking him before the class by calling him "Indian, Indian, Indian." This part of the story ends with Victor saying, "Yes, I am. I am Indian. Indian, I am."

The Lone Ranger can be read either as a long poem, an experimental novel or a collection of short stories. The same characters keep appearing either as narrators or subjects. Alexie uses a rough-cut documentary style, as though he were holding a video camera, interviewing childhood friends and relatives and recording their stories in brief, disjointed scenes, then turning the camera on himself at different points in his life. The result is a many-faceted picture, like a mosaic of broken glass.

The unnamed narrator of the story "Imagining the Reservation" actually tapes shattered pieces of a mirror all over his body, the shards reflecting his reservation life. The effect is both dreamy, like stepping into a Salvador Dali, and shockingly real—too true to be fiction. Alexie lulls his reader with passages of lush elegiac prose-poetry, only to break off the reverie with an act of unspeakable cruelty. In one scene, U.S. cavalrymen play polo with an Indian woman's head. In another, a woman holds her newborn son while, unknown to her, the doctor ties her tubes.

Most of the characters in The Lone Ranger are collaborators with a white world that has stripped them of everything but their supply of liquor, collaborators in a centuries-old plot to tear away, bit by bit, every scrap of Indian land, culture, character. At a carnival midway Victor sees Dirty Joe, passed out from "too much coat-pocket whiskey … I stood over him, looked down at his flat face, a map for all the wars he fought at the Indian bars." As a cruel joke, Victor gives a carny 20 bucks to put Dirty Joe on a roller coaster for the grotesque entertainment of the white crowd. After the carny chucks Joe down the steps head-first into the crowd for emptying his stomach on the platform, Victor flees to the funhouse. There, wracked with guilt, he examines his own distorted features in the funhouse "crazy mirrors" and sees "the Indian who offered up another Indian like some treaty."

Given the pervasive bleakness he finds around him, it's remarkable that Sherman Alexie has survived at all. There is something hopeful in the very fact that he is writing, examining what hurts most, and healing ancient wounds. But there's also an urgency bordering on desperation in his voice. Alexie seems to be telling stories to save himself from the bottomless depression of the bottle, to rescue his tribe and his culture from oblivion, and to force a complacent white reader to look out the window, maybe even stop the car, and witness the crime that is an American Indian reservation.

Publishers Weekly (review date 8 November 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of First Indian on the Moon, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 45, November 8, 1993, p. 70.

[In the following review, the critic praises Alexie's use of the metaphor of fire in First Indian on the Moon.]

Reading [First Indian on the Moon, the] latest offering of poetry and short prose pieces from Native American writer Alexie (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), it's easy to see why his work has garnered so much attention. Working from a carefully developed understanding of his place in an oppressed culture, he focuses on the need to tear down obstacles before nature tears them down. Fire is therefore a central metaphor: a sister and brother-in-law killed, a burnt hand, cars aflame. Tongue in cheek, Alexie inserts images from popular songs and movies, and catalogues aspects of traditional reservation life that have been sacrificed in America's melting pot. "After 500 years of continuous lies / I would still sign treaties for you," he says in one of this volume's many love poems—a love so powerful it threatens to engulf readers as well. Alexie renews the nearly forgotten sense of language equaling power. And the language in these sequential works is flawless, each section picking up from and expanding upon the previous one, poetry and prose working naturally together. "[I]magination is all we have as defense against capture and its inevitable changes," he writes. And he proves his point.

Frank Allen (review date 15 November 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of First Indian on the Moon, in Library Journal, Vol. 118, No. 19, November 15, 1993, pp. 77-8.

[In the following review, Allen discusses cultural and personal influences on Alexie's verse in First Indian on the Moon.]

Outraged pride, broken promises, and the scourge of alcoholism are the burden of [First Indian on the Moon's] sharp-edged, high-impact poems, prose poems, mini-essays, and fragments of stories woven together in a tapestry of pain about death by fire and survival by endurance on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Memories of great Indian chiefs, "fancydancers," powwow campfires, and "some Crazy Horse dreams," set against cruelty toward Native Americans, reveal "what went wrong with our love." Caught between alien white and disintegrated Native American cultures, "home-less and hopeful," Alexie uses the "magic and loss" of song and story to forge an "entire identity" out of anger and the nightmare of racism. Despite pain, this moving work celebrates something that can't be killed by cavalry swords, Thunderbird wine, "fake ceremonies," or "continuous lies": there is "nothing more beautiful than snow fallen onto the dark hair and braids of these Spokane Indians."

Joseph Bruchac (review date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of First Indian on the Moon, in Small Press, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter, 1994, p. 86.

[In the following review of First Indian on the Moon, Bruchac explores Alexie's evolution as a writer.]

Few young writers have burst onto the scene with as much praise as Sherman Alexie. His first book, [I Would Steal Horses,] published in 1992, was called "wide-ranging and dexterous" with "an astonishing range of voice and emotion." First Indian on the Moon, his second volume of poems published by Hanging Loose Press, is further evidence that such praise was truly warranted.

In some ways, this book is more unified than his first, for it can almost be read as a cycle of poems—about Native loves and losses and fires—set against the backdrop of the Spokane Reservation. The double-edged theme of fire appears again and again in his pictures of an Indian family so cursed by conflagrations that "When the Tribal Cop heard on his radio / that a car was burning down at Little Falls Dam, his first thought / was Those damn Alexies and their goddamn cars." That kind of humor, understated at times and broader than burlesque at others, is so typical of contemporary Native life and so seldom caught in print that I found myself holding my breath as I raced from poem to poem with titles, such as "Reservation Drive-In," "The Alcoholic Love Poems," "Tiny Treaties," and "Seven Long Songs Which Include the Collective History of the United States." The mirror he holds reflects us all, Native and transplant American alike.

There is enough love, heartbreak, and ironic intelligence in this small book to fill an encyclopedia. Although Alexie may sometimes lean a little too far towards repetition, it simply means there is room for growth at the start of what bodes to be a long, meaningful career. There is the kind of spiritual strength in his work that speaking the most painful truths can bring. First Indian on the Moon is strong medicine—but a medicine needed by us all.

Alan R. Velie (review date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: "Native American," in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p. 407.

[In the review below, Velie describes The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven as "powerful and lyrical."]

Although it is highly uncommon for American writers to be successful at both poetry and fiction, it is the rule rather than the exception for American Indian novelists. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Gerald Vizenor, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Silko, and Linda Hogan have published both novels and collections of verse. The latest to join the list is Sherman Alexie. He initially achieved notice for his poetry collections I Would Steal Horses, Old Shirts & New Skins, and First Indian on the Moon, and gained a measure of prominence when his 1992 collection of prose and verse, The Business of Fancydancing, was selected by the New York Times as one of its Notable Books of the Year. His latest work, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, à la Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, establishes him not only as one of the best of the Indian writers but as one of the most promising of the new generation of American writers.

Alexie is Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, and The Lone Ranger is about growing up Indian on the rez in eastern Washington. A major theme of the book is the feeling of despair, guilt, and helplessness that overcomes Indians as they and their friends and relatives give up on life and lapse into unemployment and alcoholism. The story here is not a bleak one, however; it is leavened with humor, and the writing is powerful and lyrical enough to transmute the dross of Spokane existence into something fascinating.

Alexie introduces us to a colorful cast of characters: Lester FallsApart, David WalksAlong, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and Frank Many Horses, among many others. More than most ethnic groups, Indians have a strong sense of history; they think constantly of their glamorous past of mounted warfare. They are painfully aware that the days of stealing horses and making war are over, but they are not sure what to replace those activities with. The chief substitute is basketball, a game that reservation Indians love as much as urban blacks do. Unfortunately, whereas blacks commonly use sports as a way out of the ghetto, Indians, though they are often as gifted, are so tied to tribal life that it is extremely rare for them to make it to college as athletes or scholars.

Words that recur frequently in The Lone Ranger are survival and forgiveness. Survival is a constant concern in what Alexie describes as "the generation of HUD house, of car wreck and cancer, of commodity cheese and beef." The self-destructiveness of the characters is appalling: alcoholism and its related catastrophe, the car wreck, are pandemic. Indians are sensitive rather than callous, however, "the most sensitive people on the planet," and so they feel terrible guilt and constantly seek forgiveness.

Louise Erdrich portrays a similar bunch of scuzzy lumpen types in Love Medicine and, through compassion and humor, transforms them into characters we care about. Alexie does this for his crew, and adds an element of the exuberant magical realism Gerald Vizenor employs in his Griever books. For instance, [in "Family Portrait" in] The Lone Ranger he writes:

In the summer of 1972 or 1973, or only in our minds, the reservation disappeared…. Just like that there was nothing there beyond the bottom step…. My father was happily drunk and he stumbled off the bottom step before any of us could stop him. He came back years later with diabetes and a pocketful of quarters. The seeds in the cuffs of his pants dropped to the floor of our house and grew into orange trees.

Like Erdrich and Vizenor, Alexie has turned the lives and dreams of the people of his reservation into superb literature.

James Beschta (review date May 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of First Indian on the Moon, in Kliatt, Vol. 28, No. 3, May, 1994, p. 23.

[Below, Beschta surveys Native American themes in First Indian on the Moon.]

[First Indian on the Moon] opens with "Influences," a poem of the survival of young Indian children in the face of the alcoholism that dominates their parents, their reservation, their world. That theme of Indian survival in a hostile environment is constant throughout the book, as is the alcoholism, depression and poverty of the reservation system. Through varying situations and scenes, these pieces are connected by their reaction to the establishment which has systematically abused Native Americans. Not so long ago, this would have been labeled "protest poetry" in its reaction to a perceived political agenda.

      Children, the enemy reads us the news       at 6 o'clock every night.

Yet this book rises above this simplistic categorization. It does so because of its lyricism;

     … Here I offer what I own:      this crown of flame, this skin scarred      and blistered, this sinner curled      like blackened leaves      in the hands of an angry god.

and it does so because of its intellectual perception;

     Often, in this poetry, we steal words, gather kindling,      twist newspaper, circle rocks, and wait for the flame. We      create metaphors to compensate for what we have lost.

and it does so in its pride and optimism;

     but every once in a while      we can remind each other      that we are both survivors and children      and grandchildren of survivors.

The theme here is limited but sincere. The writing is skillful and effective. This book serves both as social conscience and art.

Carl L. Bankston III (review date May-June 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of First Indian on the Moon, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, May-June, 1994, p. 15.

[In the following review of First Indian on the Moon, Bankston notes that while Alexie's recent verse resembles his previous efforts, his work has not become "hackneyed."]

We know what to expect from poet and short-story writer Sherman Alexie. In his first three volumes of poetry and in his recent collection of stories, he focused intently on modern Native American life in the Northwest, employing the same characters to explore the themes of the bleakness of reservation life, of alcohol as the only readily available release from this bleakness, of powerlessness as the pervasive reality of contemporary tribal existence. In verse and prose, he has expressed this uncompromising vision with a spare, minimalist style, paring his words down to the bone. Comic moments appear suddenly and unexpectedly on this harsh landscape, so that irony twists despair into a peculiar kind of faith.

Alexie's new book [First Indian on the Moon] will be familiar in its characters, style, themes, and atmosphere to all of his readers. He is not exploring new territory. But he is reworking the old ground productively, like a gardener who sticks to his own backyard.

As in the author's previous works, a distinctive personality underlies the poems. While the writing may not be strictly autobiographical, it has the intimacy and the particularity of confessional literature. True, it often employs generic images of the modern Native American reservation as ghetto (HUD housing, fry bread, alcoholism), but the voice that lingers over small moments and the poems' powerful sense of self salvage these images from sociological abstraction.

Alexie appears to be keenly aware of his tendency to dwell, almost obsessively, on certain themes and images, and he frequently uses this tendency as a means of organizing his poems into chapters. In the section entitled "A Reservation Table of the Elements," for example, fire—both the air-fire of flame and fire-water—intertwines with memories of reservation existence. The first lines of the poem "Genetics" proclaim:

     Fire      follows my family      each spark      each flame      a soldier      in the U.S. Cavalry.

The fire is a symbol, but it's also a series of actual tragic and tragicomic events in the speaker's past. A childhood attic fire has burned up all the family possessions except

     … a family portrait      singed      curled at the edges      all of our dark skin      darkened      by ash and smoke damage.

A trailer fire kills the speaker's older sister and her husband. A series of electrical fires destroys three cars in separate incidents: "When the Tribal Cop heard on his radio that a car was burning down at Little Falls Dam, his first thought was Those damn Alexies and their goddamn cars."

The poem "Fire Storm" is one of the most intense and moving pieces of the book, shifting between verse and prose poem in a series of reflections on the fire that killed the older sister. Alexie follows mundane detail with simple but impassioned language, ending in an offertory funeral speech reminiscent of passages from Ginsberg's Kaddish. Death and life are close in this and other poems, and Alexie shows a gift for standing by the line that separates them and looking in both directions.

The poems in the section "Tiny Treaties" revolve around another of Alexie's recurrent themes: the contradictions and difficulties of having dark skin and inhabiting a white-skinned world. This emotional tangle, which one writer has referred to as the "cultural schizophrenia" of minority members, has occupied a dominant place in all of Alexie's writings. The "treaties" of love and friendship made with whites are continually plagued by tentativeness and doubt:

     Sometimes when an Indian boy loves      a white girl and vice versa      it's like waking up      with half of the world      on fire. You don't know      if you should throw water      onto those predictable flames      or let the whole goddamn thing burn.

In writing about the twisted relationship between Indian and Anglo, Alexie slips from the intimately personal to the categorical. The fourth song of "Seven Love Songs Which Include the Collective History of the United States of America" evokes two lovers, one apparently native and the other apparently white:

     Suddenly, we are all arms and legs      and it's summer and too hot to make love      but we do anyway on the kitchen floor      near the refrigerator with its door open.

In the next song, these two individuals have become racial categories: "I was a fisherman for 15,000 years / before you stumbled onto my shore / your legs sea-heavy and awkward." This continual tension between Alexie's autobiographical voice and his concern with the social and historical forces that shape biographies gives the poems a unique quality of being socially aware without being propagandistic, and of presenting a world from the perspective of the first person without being egocentric.

As he balances between the personal and the historical, Alexie also balances between song and ideas. "All I Wanted to Do Was Dance" proclaims the title of one of the book's sections, and readers can almost dance to the rhythm of the lyrics, but they won't lose themselves in the music. Alexie is always thinking while he's singing or dancing, always trying to come to terms with himself and provoke others to come to terms with themselves. Many of the poems close on notes of celebration:

     Believe me, the warriors are coming back      to take their place beside you      rising      beyond the "just surviving"      singing      those new songs      that sound      exactly      like the old ones

But the dominant mood is dark and contemplative:

     Sometimes, I think I love you      because it's always easiest      to love the unloved      to dream about the dreamless      to watch an Indian woman      just this side      of beautiful      slow dance      to a sad song      and never have to worry      about making her any promises

The poems create an impression of somber, introspective requiems that constantly verge on breaking into triumphal marches, the cartoon movements of Merrie Melodies, or reservation fancydancing.

Sherman Alexie's new songs sound a lot like his old ones. But the songs haven't become hackneyed, and the poet still has his gift for lifting his readers above "just surviving."

Andrea-Bess Baxter (review date November 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Old Shirts & New Skins, First Indian on the Moon, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in Western American Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, November, 1994, pp. 277-80.

[In the review below, Baxter discusses elements of realism and imagination in Alexie's Old Shirts & New Skins, First Indian on the Moon, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.]

Many Native Americans have been proclaiming recently that their new weapons for the future will be their art. The proliferation of these weapons is vital, not only for the survival of traditional cultures, but for exposing the hard truths of their lives, which is the first step in instigating change. Activist or not, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington, is a natural-born warrior quite adept at shaking things up.

In [Old Shirts & New Skins, First Indian on the Moon, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,] he continues his themes, from two previous books of poetry, of exploring the paradoxes of living on and off the reservation, of home and family, love affairs, sorrow and loss, helplessness and forgiveness. Some of his stories are full of despair; others are downright bleak. His direct honesty prevails and we are required to think and listen and think again even as we smile and laugh. He will not let us forget, well aware that without memory, stories will die.

Alexie has the power of a riveting storyteller, along with pivotal timing at using humor at the exact moment we need it most and expect it least. Throughout his work there's a stubborn insistence on living by his creed: "Survival = Anger × Imagination." His writing is deceptively minimalist and lucid in its simplicity, but there is nothing "easy" here. He refuses to allow us to relax.

In Old Shirts & New Skins his irony is honed to a sharp edge. This book is full of poetry, vignettes and little lessons. His talent for frequently turning history upside down is illustrated when Crazy Horse, who is often resurrected, finds himself in ludicrous situations. In "Indian Education" we learn that

     Crazy Horse came back to life      in a storage room of the Smithsonian,      his body rising from a wooden crate      mistakenly marked ANONYMOUS HOPI MALE

In "Postcards to Columbus" he writes that "this history and country / folded over itself like a Mobius strip…. Christopher Columbus, you are the most successful real estate agent / who ever lived, sold acres and acres of myth." He also issues a warning: "Columbus, can you hear me over the white noise / of your television set? Can you hear the ghosts of drums approaching?"

History, movies, politics, cable TV—his penchant for discovering the irony in these areas is notable. All are thrown without mercy into "The Marlon Brando Memorial Swimming Pool": "I can't believe it. This late in the 20th century and Dennis Banks / and Marlon Brando are eating / finger sandwiches out by the swimming pool. This must be fiction. But, wait, / whatever happened to AIM? / Did they all drown because Marlon refused to pay for a lifeguard?" He reiterates that "There are no mistakes on the reservation. The 20th century warrior relies / on HBO for his vision / at three in the morning." At this point, it's not too difficult to "Imagine Coyote accepts the Oscar for lifetime achievement" nor to "Imagine the reservation metaphors: … pour whiskey into the pool / until it smells like my kidney;… / Imagine the possibilities. / … Imagine how our lives will change."

A well-meaning yet useless monument, a typical swimming pool, becomes a symbol for dashed hopes and dreams, whose illusionary lure is ruinous. The only person who remains somewhat intact is Vine Deloria, Jr., who has insisted all along that "there was never any water in the pool."

First Indian on the Moon, a volume of poetry and prose, continues to expose so many fraudulent illusions that tempt us all in America today. The filmmaking industry is again hard-hit with the fast-punching prose of "The Native American Broadcasting System." We are alerted to a news bulletin that Hollywood has "announced the establishment of a new category for this year's Academy Awards: Best Performance by a Non-Native in a Native American Role. Nominees this year include Burt Lancaster, Charles Bronson, Trevor Howard, Burt Reynolds, and Kevin Costner." Are we still seeing Indians as romantic symbols, not as real human beings? The current trend of interest in everything Indian has yet to prove otherwise.

In both volumes of poetry, Alexie perfects an intriguing style, of his own making I believe, in which a prose-sonnet uses fourteen stanzas and carries a word or two from the last line of the previous stanza to the first line of the next. It creates a curious flow, almost like automatic writing, surprising the reader and even the writer himself. "Captivity" (the title refers to the narrative of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive by the Wampanoag of Massachusetts in 1676) employs this style, in which stanzas seven, eight, and nine illustrate a kind of subconscious reasoning:


Piece by piece, I reassemble the house where I was born, but there is a hole in the wall where there was none before. "What is this?" I ask my mother. "It's your sister," she answers. "You mean my sister made that hole?" "No," she says. "That hole in the wall is your sister." For weeks, I searched our architecture, studied the walls for imperfections. Listen: imagination is all we have as defense against capture and its inevitable changes.


I have changed my mind. In this story there are words fancydancing in the in-between, between then and now, between walls in the alley behind the Tribal Cafe where Indian boys smoke old cigarettes at half-time of the all-Indian basketball game. Mary Rowlandson, it's true, isn't it? Tobacco and sugar are the best weapons.


The best weapons are the stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes….

A memorable character, Lester FallsApart, appears—and disappears—like an existential anti-hero throughout Alexie's books. He is perpetually caught in the "in-between" and always amazed at how or why he gets stuck there, between the Anglo and Indian worlds. And he somehow always survives his mishaps, drinking binges, house fires, jumping off rooftops onto an Indian girl's teardrop, singing, sleeping outside on the reservation, waking up in the city in the wrong house. No matter what happens, he remembers. He shows up here and there to tell his latest story and to remind us that "no one will believe this story so it must be true."

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection of twenty-two short stories, and his first book by a major publishing house, continues the now-familiar themes and characters. Yet this work is more personal, autobiographical at times. He is still imagining, still believing in forgiveness, though "travelling heavy with illusions." Satire rescues Alexie from sliding into self-absorption or pontification. Perhaps he is telling us that one way Indians have survived has been to perfect the art of gallows humor.

This kind of humor is gloriously exalted in "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor." Jimmy Many Horses drives his wife, Norma—the world champion fry bread maker—away with his unrelenting gallows humor concerning his impending death from cancer. "Actually my favorite tumor looks just like a baseball," he announces, calling himself Babe Ruth. Fed up, Norma makes good on her threats to leave him, even though they shared a certain kind of laughter which kept them from feeling the pain too strongly: "Humor was an antiseptic that cleaned the deepest of personal wounds." Months after she'd gone, Jimmy was still at it, telling his doctor that, after a few more zaps of useless radiation treatments, "I'll be Superman." "Really?" the doctor said. "I never knew that Clark Kent was a Spokane Indian."

Norma eventually realizes that not only will she inevitably feel his death deeply and privately, she will also have to deal with her fear that "every one of our elders who dies take a piece of our past away. And that hurts more because I don't know how much of a future we have." Whether or not she realizes she is also referring to her husband, we don't know. But she leaves the powwow circuit to come home. She is "a warrior in every sense of the word" and she returns home to help Jimmy "die the right way. And maybe because making fry bread and helping people die are the last two things Indians are good at." And they both laugh when Jimmy responds, "Well, at least you're good at one of them."

There is no typical plot in Alexie's prose and stories, no easy linear events to follow with a beginning, a middle and a neatly-wrapped ending. Things don't change rapidly, nor does hope always triumph over despair after a moment of understanding or a summer of sobriety.

By wielding the weapon of imagination skillfully and passionately, Sherman Alexie exposes a gritty realism of Indian life today. He creates history, past and present, a new mythology that re-interprets fiction and fact and introduces unforgettable characters, full of irony, pain and confusion, and an inexhaustible wit. He writes about real people and real places and that makes him a tremendously accessible writer. We are invited to share in this mythology of his own making, for he tells us in "Breaking Out the Shovel":

     Friend, this is a strange journey, digging      for hours, then days, through generations of need      and it is better not to know how much farther      the digging needs to go, but I want you to know      I often stop for rest, ask directions …      … I move through history      and my story and your story, gathering      into our warmth, this heart changing by halves.

Leslie Marmon Silko (review date 12 June 1995)

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SOURCE: "Big Bingo," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 260, No. 23, June 12, 1995, pp. 856-58, 860.

[In the following review, Silko studies characterization in Reservation Blues.]

When N. Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel House Made of Dawn in 1969, book reviewers fretted that the experience of Indian reservations was too far out of the "American mainstream" for most readers; by now, such expressions of concern should seem quaint. Since 1969, the "global economy" has brought changes; now a good deal of urban and suburban United States has begun to resemble one giant government reservation—clear-cut, strip-mined then abandoned not just by Peabody Coal and General Motors but by Wal-Mart too—where massive unemployment and hopelessness trigger suicide and murder. As the good jobs have gone the way of the great herds of buffalo, the United States has become a nation of gamblers. Suddenly Indian writers are not "writing from the margins" of U.S. culture, they are writing from the center of the front page.

Thanks to Bishop Landa and his thugs, who burned the great libraries of the Americas in 1540, we know very little about the early literatures of the Americas. But it is clear from oral narratives that lengthy "fictions" of interlinked characters and events were commonplace. So it should come as no surprise that voices such as Linda Hogan, Betty Louise Bell, Ray Young Bear, Greg Sarris and Adrian C. Louis are emerging.

Another of these writers, Sherman Alexie, has swept onto the publishing scene with poems and short stories that dazzle with wicked humor, lean, fresh language and deep affection for his characters. His collection of interlinked short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, won a number of prizes, including the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first book. My favorite story in that collection is titled "Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock." In The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie's characters from the Spokane reservation stop off in Reno. With their last dollars they hit the jackpot and live it up for about twenty-four hours before they lose it all again. The old American Dream: Hit the jackpot, win the lottery, bingo big.

Now Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues, focuses on the American Dream and the price of success. All over the world in rural communities, young people share similar dreams, stirred by the same images beamed in by satellite TV and by the same lyrics of rock and roll music. Youth in this "global village" share similar discouragement too—unemployment, hunger and aborted attempts to escape their hopeless situation.

The characters in Reservation Blues have been out of high school for a few years. Their home is a small Indian town on the Spokane reservation with dead-end jobs and shared poverty and sadness to look forward to. The Spokane people still watch out for one another like one big family, except sometimes this big family seems a bit dysfunctional. (Of course, a dysfunctional family is still better than no family at all.) But for the rural landscape and the strong sense of tribal identity, Alexie's Spokane Indian town of Wellpinit could be a neighborhood in East L.A. or the Bronx; except the Spokane people use car wrecks and cheap wine, not drive-by shootings and crack, to make their escape. Reservation housing and innercity housing are quite similar:

Thomas still lived in the government HUD house where he had grown up. It was a huge house by reservation standards … however, the house had never really been finished because the Bureau of Indian Affairs cut off the building money halfway through construction. The water pipes froze every winter, and windows warped in the hot summer heat.

So while Alexie writes about the "Spokane Indian reservation," the reader begins to realize that poverty in the United States has common denominators. Take the powdered milk that connects poor rural communities and poor urban areas all over the country:

No matter how long an Indian stirred her commodity milk, it always came out with those lumps of coagulated powder. There was nothing worse. Those lumps were like bombs, moist on the outside with an inner core of dry powdered milk. An Indian would take a big swig of milk, and one of those coagulated powder bombs would drop into her mouth and explode when she bit it. She'd be coughing little puffs of powdered milk for an hour.

But Sherman Alexie doesn't limit his world to a single, corporeal dimension; Shakespeare and Henry James use ghosts, and he does too. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson walks into Wellpinit, having faked his death by poison years before so he could find out how to undo the deal he made with the old "Gentleman," the Devil got up as a well-dressed white man. He's been told there is a large woman on a mountaintop somewhere who can help him. Thomas Builds-the-Fire gives Johnson a ride up the sacred mountain where Big Mom lives; Big Mom is part of God but she's not God herself.

Later, Thomas notices that Johnson left behind his guitar in the van. When his friend Victor touches the guitar, it makes wonderful music despite his lack of skill. Victor "wanted to resist all of it, but the guitar moved in his hands, whispered his name. Victor closed his eyes and found himself in a dark place. 'Don't play for them. Play for me,' said a strange voice." This is the Devil's guitar; by the time Victor stopped playing, "his hair stood on end, his shirt pitted with burn holes and his hands blistered."

The Devil guitar seduces them, and Thomas, Victor and Junior, with Chess and Checkers as backup, form a rock and roll band named Coyote Springs. They dream of modest success—to open for Aerosmith at Madison Square Garden and make a little money; here the "American Dream" has been downscaled. This being an Indian reservation, everyone has an opinion about Coyote Springs: Christian churchgoers call their efforts Devil music (which in this case is literally true); the tribal chairman is jealous and yearns to find any excuse to arrest them. But "gossip about the band spread from reservation to reservation. All kinds of Indians showed up: Yakima, Lummi, Makah, Snohomish, Coeur d'Alene. Thomas and his band had developed a small following before they ever played a gig."

With the sounds from the Devil guitar, Coyote Springs wins a battle of the bands in Seattle, and record company executives pounce on them with a recording contract and studio time in New York City. These New York record company executives are named Sheridan and Wright—names of the two U.S. Army generals who fought the Spokane people and slaughtered thousands of Spokane horses in cold blood. Chess and Checkers, the young backup singers from the Flathead reservation, begin to have their doubts about the price Coyote Springs may have to pay for success, but Thomas, Victor and Junior know only that rock and roll stardom is calling them. They've got only one more number to go and they'll "bingo big"; all they have to do is make the demo tape in New York! Suddenly the pressure is on:

We have to come back as heroes. They won't let us back on this reservation if we ain't heroes. Unless we're rock stars. We already left once, and all the Spokanes hate us for it…. What if we screw up in New York and every Indian everywhere hates us? What if they won't let us on any reservation in the country?

Alexie may use an image from Indian culture, the gambler's sticks, but the meaning is clear: "If an Indian chose the correct hand, he won everything, he won all the sticks. If an Indian chose wrong, he never got to play again. Coyote Springs had only one dream, one chance to choose the correct hand."

The atmosphere of the recording studio, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The fiery Sheridan says of Coyote Springs and their music: "They don't need to be good. They just need to make money. I don't give a fuck if they're artists. Where are all the executives who signed artists? They're working at radio stations now, right?" Not even the Devil guitar can endure this. Coyote Springs is playing along just fine when suddenly Robert Johnson's haunted guitar twists itself out of Victor's hands and spoils the take. Victor loses his temper and tears apart the recording studio. Coyote Springs is finished and so is the dream.

With guys like Sheridan and Wright running the music business, the Devil guitar probably does these young Indians a favor by breaking up the recording session. But this is one area of the novel that is a bit fuzzy. There is ambivalence throughout toward the guitar, toward a talent or gift that consumes individuals and calls them away from the community. Alexie's version of Robert Johnson, on the run to escape the music, his hands burned and scarred by the guitar, casts an ominous light on talent. A gift for making music or for writing sets you apart from others, family and friends, whether you want this distance or not. Alexie wrestles with the conundrum: Did their gift for music kill Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin or did the music sustain them and lengthen their time in this world? Is it better to throw away your guitar or word processor and live an ordinary life? Will you be happier?

Coyote Springs' members return to the Spokane reservation, but everything has been changed by their brush with success. Junior commits suicide, as he probably always meant to. His ghost visits Victor and says he just got tired of living. The ghost helps Victor throw away the liquor bottle, but when Victor tries to get a job to save himself, his own uncle, the pompous tribal chairman, writes him off. Victor seems bound to join Junior in the other world. Only Thomas and Chess, who are in love, and Checkers, who loves them, survive the crushed dream. Again there is a whiff of ambivalence about success in the "mainstream" world. Big Mom hadn't wanted them to go to New York in the first place—the implication being that music should be made for people, for the community, not for record companies.

Yet it is clear that having a shot at success means a great deal. Thomas is infuriated when he learns that the only musicians who get a big recording contract and realize the American Dream are the two young white women, Betty and Veronica, who once sang backup for Coyote Springs. The record company executives Sheridan and Wright decided they needed "a more reliable kind" of Indian. "Basically, we need Indians such as yourselves," they tell the two young white women, who reply, "But we ain't that much Indian." "You're Indian enough, right? I mean, all it takes is a little bit, right? Who's to say you are not Indian enough?… What it comes down to is this. You play for this company as Indians. Or you don't play at all. I mean, who needs another white-girl folk group?" When Betty and Veronica send Thomas a copy of their first album, he furiously destroys the tape.

Yet Alexie's characters are young, still learning; with the blessing of Big Mom and the citizens of Wellpinit, the remaining former members of the rock band decide to leave the reservation for a while. The town of Spokane isn't far from the reservation, and the phone company is hiring—just as it might be. If we Indians do not "represent" our communities as we see them, then others, the likes of Sheridan and Wright, will concoct fantasies that pass for truth. Unlike the bucolic idylls of small-town America pawned off by, say, Garrison Keillor, Alexie's portrayal of the reservation town of Wellpinit and its people is in the tradition of communities evoked in The Scarlet Letter, Babbitt, Sanctuary and The Last Picture Show. These small towns are like the old cat who eats her kittens.

It is difficult not to imagine Reservation Blues as a reflection of the ambivalence that a young, gifted author might have about "success" in the ruthless, greed-driven world of big publishing, where executives very much resemble cavalry generals. He may feel the same pressure the members of Coyote Springs felt to come home to the reservation a "hero." At the same time, small communities, Indian and non-Indian alike, are ambivalent about the success of one of their own. There is bound to be a bit of jealousy, and maybe even those who mutter that they prefer anonymity for their community.

Make no mistake: Alexie's talent is immense and genuine, and needs no Devil's typewriter. The power of his writing rises out of the Spokane River and the Spokane earth where it is sweetened with the music of Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. On this big Indian reservation we call "the United States," Sherman Alexie is one of the best writers we have.

Frederick Busch (review date 16 July 1995)

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SOURCE: "Longing for Magic," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. C, No. 29, July 16, 1995, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review of Reservation Blues, Busch comments on narrative structures in the work.]

To read about Native American reservation life is usually to read about illness and despair. Fiction originating from that life is also, of course, capable of wild happiness and celebration; but the darkness is a fact of life and art. James Welch, in his superb novel Winter in the Blood, observes his characters' suffering from the corner of his narrative eye; Reynolds Price, in his moving novella Walking Lessons, confronts the sorrow directly. Sherman Alexie, whose 1993 collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was justly applauded, writes about characters who are squarely in the middle of reservation life but who report it to us from a point of view that is simultaneously tangential to the mainstream of that life as well as part of its sad, slow rhythms.

Here, for example, from his first novel, Reservation Blues, is Mr. Alexie's description of the Indians' mythic coyote "a trickster whose bag of tricks contains permutations of love, hate, weather, chance, laughter and tears, e.g., Lucille Ball." He catches the ancient and the contemporary, the solemn and the self-mocking, at once; he evokes dreary days of watching black-and-white television reruns in a place of "poverty, suicide, alcoholism," where "Indian Health only gave out dental floss and condoms." When Mr. Alexie writes at his best, he creates stinging commentary, and he shows his determination to make you uncertain whether you want to laugh or cry.

His characters long for a traditional magic that is endangered, crushed under hundreds of years of bad faith and bad luck and bad management. As Thomas Builds-the-Fire, in Reservation Blues, reports to us, "Nobody believed in anything on this reservation." "More than anything," Mr. Alexie says of Thomas, "he wanted a story to heal the wounds, but he knew that his stories never healed anything." Mr. Alexie's humor, like Thomas's, is a shield against aggression from within and without. Like Mr. Alexie, Thomas dreams and tells deeply moving domestic stories. And he insists upon bearing witness, in quiet, powerful ways, to the sad, diminished life of so many of the Spokane and other American Indians. Like Thomas, Mr. Alexie wants "the songs, the stories, to save everybody."

Mr. Alexie means everybody. He writes of love affairs and marriages between Indians and whites. He salutes the very un-Indian Franz Kafka in a short story about Thomas Builds-the-Fire included in The Lone Ranger and Tonto by using as its epigraph the opening lines of The Trial. And when you read Reservation Blues, you will think of Kafka, perhaps his stories "The Bucket Rider" and "The Judgment." You might also be reminded of the character Milkman Dead in Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon and those little, light-footed Jews of Bernard Malamud and Marc Chagall. All are capable of suggesting to us dreamy flight while reminding us of the great specific gravity of their world.

Reservation Blues takes many characters from The Lone Ranger and Tonto, as well as characters we've not met before, and connects their stories of Spokane reservation life. Thomas Builds-the-Fire may be said to be the protagonist, but it is his people who are at the center of the narrative and, indeed, no chapter is carried by a single character's consciousness. One moves from the point of view of Thomas to that of his friend Victor to that of Chess, the woman he loves, to that of Father Arnold, the doubting reservation priest, to that of Robert Johnson, the great African-American bluesman, who has faked his death to escape the Gentleman—the Devil, to whom he sold his soul for the ability to make great music—and who seeks the wisdom of Big Mom, who is the reservation's repository of Indian lore. (She can even make 200 pieces of fry bread from 100, a good equivalent to the parable of fishes and loaves.) Johnson abandons his guitar, and Victor takes it up and plays it wonderfully; so Victor, Thomas (who sings) and their friend Junior (who plays the drums) form Coyote Springs, a rock-and-roll band. Mr. Alexie provides the lyrics of their songs, which aren't any better or worse than other rock songs, although their subject matter is Indian life.

The story connects dozens of smaller stories about these characters. Also connecting the fragments are dreams. "Indians were supposed to have visions and receive messages from their dreams," Junior says. "All the Indians on television had visions that told them exactly what to do." At his best, Mr. Alexie refuses to be pious or to pretend that he is writing anything other than sad reflections on a people's loss. He is funny, he is perceptive and he knows how to stir us in large and small ways.

When he goes wrong, it is because he tries to suggest that a rock band can bear the metaphorical weight of an entire culture—not even Roddy Doyle's novel The Commitments sustained such a concept—and because he uses repetition as a substitute for narrative structure. Early in the novel, we are given a story about Big Mom, who is magically alive 134 years before we meet her and who witnesses a terrible slaughter of Indians' horses by the United States Cavalry. We are told that a colt "fell to the grass of the clearing, to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern, to the cold, hard coroner's table in a Veterans Hospital." If referred to once in a story in that way, such an image provides an awful and telling moment, and the event can support the burden of suggestion. Mr. Alexie, either not trusting that we will understand the significance, which he has already underscored, or believing that the metaphorical value will increase with repetition and will serve as structure, has the slaughtered horses screaming many times, often as the sole event in a paragraph—"The horses screamed"—but the freighted words carry no additional weight, and they don't connote more than they did earlier. A couple of white singers named Betty and Veronica—get it?—sell out with ease to a recording company, but Coyote Springs has far more difficulty. Executives of the company, named Sheridan and Wright by Mr. Alexie, after men who planned and executed the genocide of American Indians, call for liquor to celebrate their discovery of the band: "The horses screamed." We do get it.

Though there is wonderful humor and profound sorrow in this novel, and brilliant renditions of each, there is not enough structure to carry the dreams and tales that Mr. Alexie needs to portray and that we need to read. His talent may be for the short form. But the talent is real, and it is very large, and I will gratefully read whatever he writes, in whatever form.

Abigail Davis (review date July-August 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of Reservation Blues, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, July-August, 1995, p. 16.

[Below, Davis praises the universality of Alexie's literary works.]

This first novel by Sherman Alexie [Reservation Blues] comes as close to helping a non-Native American understand the modern Indian experience as any attempt in current literature. The reader closes the book feeling troubled, hurt, hopeful, profoundly thoughtful, and somehow exhausted, as if the quest of the characters had been a personal experience.

Alexie, a 28-year-old Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is a powerfully prolific writer whose earlier works have received much attention. The Business of Fancydancing (1992), a collection of poems and stories, was named a New York Times Notable Book for 1992; Alexie is a citation winner for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction and winner of the 1994 Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award.

Reservation Blues chronicles the career of an Indian rock group called Coyote Springs. The three male members, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Junior Polatkin, and Victor Joseph, are from the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit; two women vocalists, Chess and Checkers Warm Water, are members of the Flathead tribe. When, for a brief time, two white groupies (who are into Indian men rather than musicians) join the band as backup singers, all hell breaks loose. The group evolves rather than forms, and with little or no direction or planning moves from playing reservation bars to a club in Seattle to a potential recording contract in New York. Readers of Alexie's previous collections of poems and stories—The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1994), First Indian on the Moon (1994), and The Business of Fancydancing (1992)—will recognize some familiar characters, and will most significantly be alert to Alexie's unmistakable narrative voice, which, as always, is laced with humor and anger and driven by great intelligence.

As musicians, Coyote Springs puts the "a" in amateur. Their burgeoning skills and subsequent success are due to a mystical guitar—clearly a tool of the devil—that was once owned by blues legend Robert Johnson, who was said to be murdered in 1938. Johnson allegedly sold his soul Faust-style for his talent, and his appearance as a living character in Alexie's story is significant. Johnson is still trying to "lose" the guitar and escape its grip. In Alexie's version of the Faust legend, the devil tells Johnson that he has to give up "whatever you love the most" in exchange for superhuman musical ability. Johnson sacrifices his freedom (not his soul), and until the guitar finds a new "owner" (in this case, Victor Joseph, lead guitarist for Coyote Springs), Johnson is trapped. Alexie gives the theme of evil as a pandemic and enduring force a new twist when Victor cuts his own deal with the devil and, presented with the same choice as Johnson, sacrifices his best friend. Unlike those who addressed the theme before him—authors Marlowe and Goethe, composers Berlioz and Liszt—Alexie seems to find the loss of freedom and friendship more serious and dangerous than the loss of one's own soul; or perhaps we are meant to understand that the three are intrinsically interconnected, symbiotic, and that the human experience is more complex than even Goethe thought.

Alexie is a plot magician, and the actual story of the musical escapades of Coyote Springs is but a fraction of this complex book. The narrative contains traditional dialogue along with songs and poems, dreams, visions, newspaper excerpts, charismatic characters, an Indian (and, to my mind, improved) version of the Faust legend, several well-placed whacks at missionary and Catholic Christianity, as well as some riotously funny scenes. The collective impact of these various narrative devices is startling; layer after layer, we are pulled into the fractured experiences and spiritual lives of the characters. We (and here I speak as an outsider to the experiences that Alexie writes about so vividly) are jarred into any number of acknowledgments: that reservation life includes a cruel Catch-22, whereby the people who leave the reservation to break the cycle of dependency on the U.S. government are considered traitors by those who stay; that prejudices between tribes are just as virulent and hostile as the racist attitudes that infect other areas of American society; that life for mixed-blood children is the same hell on the reservation as it is in most other places for most races. "Your son will be beaten because he's a half-breed," Chess says to a vision of a white woman and half-Indian child.

No matter what he does, he'll never be Indian enough. Other Indians won't accept him…. Don't you see?… Those quarter-blood and eighth-blood grandchildren will find out they're Indian and torment the rest of us real Indians…. [They] will get all the Indian jobs, all the Indian chances, because they look white. Because they're safer.

Alexie casts a wide net, and in Reservation Blues his narrative style is a highly effective combination of all the prose forms. In chronicling the pain and progress of one five-person, mixed-tribe rock band, Alexie has, miraculously, managed to speak to all of us.


Alexie, Sherman (Vol. 154)