Sherman Alexie Alexie, Sherman (Vol. 96) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Wellpinit, Washington. Reflecting on his life experiences, Alexie asserted in The 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, The Business 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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I Would Steal Horses (poetry) 1992
The Business of Fancydancing (short stories and 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

Alex Kuo (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Publishers Weekly (review date 1 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

The New Yorker (essay date 10 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sybil S. Steinberg (review date 19 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Andrea-Bess Baxter (review date August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Brian Schneider (review date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Reynolds Price (review date 17 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Goodwin Sides (review date 17 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 8 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frank Allen (review date 15 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joseph Bruchac (review date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Alan R. Velie (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Beschta (review date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Andrea-Bess Baxter (review date November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leslie Marmon Silko (review date 12 June 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Frederick Busch (review date 16 July 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Abigail Davis (review date July-August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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