Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1830
In his poetry volume Old Shirts and New Skins (1993) Sherman Alexie offers a formula that he attributes to one of his recurring characters, Lester FallsApart: “Poetry = Anger Imagination.” The formula appears slightly altered in a story in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven , where “Poetry”...
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- Critical Essays
In his poetry volume Old Shirts and New Skins (1993) Sherman Alexie offers a formula that he attributes to one of his recurring characters, Lester FallsApart: “Poetry = Anger Imagination.” The formula appears slightly altered in a story in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, where “Poetry” is replaced with “Survival.” A more accurate formula might require that Anger and its multiple, Imagination, be divided by Humor or Wit, for what makes Alexie’s anger tolerable for many readers is not so much his imagination, which is sometimes visionary and suggests certain features of Magical Realism, but his comic, generally satiric sensibility. Alexie’s comedy is often dark, and he frequently employs insult humor, as in Reservation Blues, when Chess, a Flathead Indian woman, tells Veronica, an Indian wannabe, that “a concussion is just as traditional as a sweatlodge.” This passage exemplifies another facet of Alexie’s perspective on Indianness. He has described himself as having been influenced as much by 1970’s family television program The Brady Bunch as by tribal traditions.
Part of what makes Alexie so popular with academic audiences is his blending of pop-culture elements with historical and literary allusion. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for instance, young Arnold Spirit, Jr., reflects on the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877). Reservation Blues is constructed on the Faust legend as embodied in the historical blues guitarist Robert Johnson, but the novel is also haunted by such historical figures as Colonel George Wright, who had nine hundred Spokane horses shot in 1858. Two New Age white groupies who hang out with the reservation blues band are named Betty and Veronica, straight out of the Archie comic books. Female characters figure prominently and powerfully in Alexie’s fiction. He consistently assails racist and sexist attitudes, and he has taken a strong stand against homophobia and gay bashing.
Dreams and memories, sometimes historically based like the murder of Crazy Horse, tend to haunt Alexie’s fiction. These combine with characters such as Big Mom, who appears to have mystical powers, to lend otherworldly or surreal overtones. A basketball game might dissolve into fantasy. A magical guitar might burst into flame. In Flight, the teenage protagonist experiences a series of metamorphoses, inhabiting multiple bodies, both white and Indian, before he returns to himself in the body of his runaway father, which prompts him to reflect on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601).
With certain exceptions, as in Indian Killer and some of the later stories, Alexie prefers uncomplicated syntax and colloquial dialogue; short paragraphs predominate. These stylistic features combine with others, including Alexie’s disinclination toward complex imagery and metaphor, to make his fiction readily accessible.
The three predominant characters in his first novel, Reservation Blues, Alexie has described as “the holy trinity of me”: Victor Joseph (angry, physical, inclined to drink), Junior Polatkin (the “intellectual” because he went to college for a couple of years), and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (the storyteller, spiritual, given to memories and dreams). When they acquire legendary blues singer Robert Johnson’s magic guitar, this trio forms the nucleus of the reservation blues band, Coyote Springs, which is joined by two Flathead Indian sisters, Chess and Checkers Warm Water. Their success arouses the enmity of their fellow Spokanes, notably in the person of the tribal chair, David WalksAlong.
Thomas and Chess (predictably, the more intellectual of the sisters) form a couple, and record producers from the East, Phil Sheridan and George Wright (both named after historically renowned Indian fighters), offer them an audition with Cavalry Records. Despite Big Mom’s assistance, however, the recording session ends disastrously, and when the band members return to the reservation, Junior commits suicide. Ironically, the record company finds Betty and Veronica to be “Indian enough” and signs them to a contract, the refrain to one song being “Indian in my bones.” Thomas stomps on the tape.
When Thomas, Chess, and Checkers leave the reservation to move to the city of Spokane, Big Mom organizes reconciliation with the tribe at the longhouse. One important theme of the novel concerns the importance of maintaining blood quantum through the marriage of Thomas and Chess. Alexie also deals with the dangers of alcohol and violence (the beverage of choice at the longhouse is Pepsi). While he does not reject traditional tribal values (Big Mom teaches a song of survival at the end of the novel), Alexie implicitly underscores the benefits of leaving the reservation, as he himself elected to do.
In Indian Killer, a wealthy white couple from Seattle adopts an infant from an unspecified Indian reservation. John Smith (the name ironically echoes the historical Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame) consequently grows up tribeless and confused as to his identity. A loner and apparently a paranoid schizophrenic, John suffers from various delusions and violent fantasies. When a serial killer scalps victims and leaves owl feathers with their bodies, the reader tends to side with characters in the novel who suspect an Indian (likely John) is the killer.
Opposite John Smith stands Marie Polatkin, a self-assured Spokane Indian activist and University of Washington student (majoring in English), who ably puts down the arrogant professor of Native American literature, Dr. Clarence Mather. It could be argued that racial profiling or stereotyping runs throughout this often-foreboding novel. It seems unlikely, for example, that any teacher in Mather’s position would offer Forrest Carter’s controversial 1976 novel The Education of Little Tree as required reading in a college course on Indian writers, and the virulently racist shock-jock radio talk-show host Truck Schultz is as exaggerated a caricature as a Charles Dickens villain. Suzanne Evertsen Lundquist has connected the faux-Indian novelist Jack Wilson with the Paiute Ghost Dance prophet Wovoka. Daniel Grassian has observed that the novel arose from Alexie’s “anger and dissatisfaction” regarding non-Indians who write “Indian books.”
The killer is not identified, and although some readers may assume it is John Smith, who commits suicide by leaping from the skyscraper on which he has been working, Alexie never states for certain that the killer is in fact an Indian. Moreover, it may be debatable whether John himself is truly “Indian”; he never appears to acquire a confident sense of who he is. Reviewers have characterized Indian Killer as “angry” and even “ugly,” but its sinister theme calls for such pejorative qualifiers: the white control, denial, even eradication of the Indian’s identity or possession of self and the violence resulting from that act.
Flight, a short novel (at fewer than forty thousand words, more aptly “novella”), opens with the fifteen-year-old protagonist declaring, in the mode of Herman Melville’s Ishmael, from Moby Dick (1851), “Call me Zits.” The streetwise, angry-and-sad, mixed-blood product of multiple foster homes and various types of abuse describes himself as “a blank sky, a human solar eclipse,” but he adopts a darkly comic perspective and refuses to feel sorry for himself. A white boy allegorically named Justice gets Zits involved in a bank robbery armed with both a real pistol and a paint gun. When he is fatally shot during the robbery, however, Zits begins a series of five transformations (metempsychoses) in which he inhabits various male bodies, starting with that of a white agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1975 Idaho (the action recalls events that took place at Wounded Knee, South Dakota).
As he occupies other bodies, ranging from that of a mute Indian boy at the Battle of the Little Bighorn to that of a guilt-ridden pilot who has taught a Muslim terrorist how to fly a plane, Zits participates in acts of violence, but he also witnesses compassionate and heroic behavior, notably on the part of white characters. After occupying his Indian father’s body, Zits is brought to an understanding of why his father deserted his mother, who died soon afterward. When he returns to himself, Zits leaves the bank and hands his guns to a friendly white police officer named Dave, who arranges to have Zits adopted by his brother and his wife, who introduces the boy to acne medicine. In the last sentences of the novella, Zits reveals his actual name, “Michael.”
In Flight Alexie offers readers who might have been alarmed at certain ominous aspects of Indian Killer a more hopeful solution to the problem of Indian identity and to an apparently inescapable cycle of violence in contemporary American (especially urban) society. Although this book has not been identified as young adult fiction, the protagonist’s age and the elements of fantasy and time travel are likely to appeal to that readership.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Although the page count of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is higher than that of Flight, this autobiographical novel runs about the same length (that is, around forty thousand words) and so might also be designated a “novella.” Marketed as young adult fiction, the book features a fourteen-year-old protagonist, Arnold Spirit, Jr., who resembles Alexie in every way, including his hydrocephalic birth; his move from the reservation town of Wellpinit to Reardan, which he sees as necessary to his hopes but also as possible betrayal of his tribe; and his popularity in the white world and his success as a basketball player and as a student.
Divided into twenty-nine very short chapters and illustrated by Seattle artist Ellen Forney (Arnold says that he draws cartoons because he finds words “too predictable” and “too limited”), the novella moves rapidly, as does most of Alexie’s fiction. That is, the fast pace encountered here is not necessarily a function of the novel’s intended audience. Alexie’s tendency to promote dialogue as opposed to narrative paragraphs is common to most of the short stories of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and to both Reservation Blues and Flight. Only in some of the stories of The Toughest Indian in the World and Ten Little Indians and in the novel Indian Killer does Alexie more frequently employ paragraphs that run longer than half a page.
If The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian were to be read as memoir, it would likely be described as a “success story,” particularly success achieved by overcoming adversity that involves poverty and racial prejudice. Like Alexie, the adolescent Arnold chooses, at some personal risk, to redefine himself in the broader world outside the reservation. Although this decision temporarily costs him his best friend, appropriately named Rowdy, Arnold finds himself welcome (surprisingly, both for him and for the reader) in the white world of small farm-town Reardan. The hopeful story is darkened, however, by the deaths of Arnold’s grandmother, his sister, and his father’s best friend, all of which involve alcohol in some way. Alexie’s cautionary tale for young Indian readers is clear: Avoid alcohol and accept the challenge of leaving the apparently secure but perilously limiting world of the reservation.