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...
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