Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1867
In this work Sherman Alexie addresses Americans whose ideas about American Indians have been shaped by countless stereotypes, one-dimensional figures ranging from Iron Eyes Cody weeping in television spots to the sadly debased people who, sociologists note, are the poorest ethnic group in the United States to the poor but noble and spiritual people of Tony Hillerman’s novels. Alexie has addressed these stereotypes in the past, but most of the Indians in this volume have left the reservation behind to enjoy the pleasures of middle-class American life. While these characters relish their high-tech jobs and all the indulgences that those jobs can provide, they affirm at the same time some of the traditional values of their people—their ironic humor, their modesty, their loyalty, and the joy with which they experience life.
Particularly notable is that these are very urban stories in which the reservation is always present but well in the background. The narrator of “Lawyer’s League,” for example, is the son of an “African American giant” who played football for the University of Washington and of a Spokane Indian ballet dancer. He himself is an honors graduate with a degree in political science from his father’s university. Similarly William, the high-tech executive of “Flight Patterns,” is “an Indian who didn’t smoke or drink or eat processed sugar” and whose business forces him to leave his comfortable suburban house and loving family several times a month while he flies around the United States. “Sure, he was an enrolled member of the Spokane Indian tribe, but he was also a fully recognized member of the notebook-computer tribe and the security-checkpoint tribe and the rental-car tribe.” In short, he could be recognized in any city’s airport as a warrior for the great tribe of American business.
All of Alexie’s characters are highly aware of their American Indian heritage, which is so much a part of them that one can scarcely say they honor it. In a sense, the themes of “Search Engine” are the themes of all these stories. In this story, Corliss is a college student, an English major with whom the works of poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins resonate. Corliss has made it to the university by dint of enormous effort and personal drive. In Spokane she was the paradox of “a poor kid, and a middle-class Indian” whose intense motivation made her scavenge aluminum cans to finance an SAT prep course for herself and to contact local preparatory school teachers for help in meeting the university admissions requirements. She needed to be eligible for substantial scholarships. Alexie is careful to note that Corliss receives much-needed help from generous whites; his characters live in a world of institutional racism and personal integrity in people of all races. Corliss has received no money and little support from the men of her family.
Indians were used to sharing and called it tribalism, but Corliss suspected it was yet another failed form of communism. Over the last two centuries, Indians had learned how to stand in lines for food, love, hope, sex, and dreams, but they didn’t know how to step away. They were good at line-standing and didn’t know if they’d be good at anything else.
Corliss’s ironic but loving view of her people seems to be Alexie’s own; it surfaces, with its sad humor, in most of the stories of this volume.
In the course of her story, Corliss discovers in the university library a long-forgotten volume of poetry by Harlan Atwater, a Spokane Indian. Although some of the poems are quite pedestrian, others have an element of freshness and insight, and Corliss is excited to find published poems by an Indian writer. When she tries to learn more about Atwater, however, she hits dead ends. Nothing has been written about him. Her mother, a repository of historical information about the Spokane reservation, has never heard of him. After a lengthy search (Corliss herself embodies the pun of “engine” and “injun” of the title) she manages to locate Atwater, an ordinary fellow who lives with his parents and has written no poetry for thirty years.
Under Corliss’s questioning, he explains that although he is indeed a Spokane Indian, he was adopted as an infant by a loving white couple, the elderly parents for whom he now cares. He wrote the poems about life on the reservation he scarcely knew in an effort to feel more like an Indian, and he goes on to explain, comically, how he used his brief career as a poet to seduce women. His career ended when he had a reading and book signing at an Indian bar and, elated by the praise of his people, gave away all his self-published volumes to his drunken audience. Atwater confesses all this to Corliss to make her understand the depths of his deception, but she senses a level of truth in all his fictions. Atwater had asked her, in the light of this fakery, what kind of Indian she thought he was, and at the end Corliss knows that the question is unanswerable—about Atwater and about herself. Still, she replaces the book on the bookstore shelf face-outward, so that everyone can see it.
Throughout these stories, roots carry an ambiguous power, just as they did for Corliss. That the power cannot be analyzed makes it no less significant. In “Do Not Go Gentle,” a young Indian couple’s infant son is in a coma in a children’s hospital. Like all the parents of dying children, they feel frantic in their powerlessness to do anything but watch their baby breathe through a medical network of tubes and monitors. At last the husband wanders out, to what he thinks is a toy store (its name is Toys in Babeland), only to discover that the store sells sex toys. Bemused, he buys a vibrator called “Chocolate Thunder” and takes it back to the hospital. After all, sex and love are the mysteries that have created all the babies in this ward; perhaps the vibrator can carry some sort of power. “Maybe some people can get by with quiet prayers, but I wanted to shout and scream and vibrate. So did plenty of other fathers and mothers in that sickroom,” the narrator says. His wife uses the vibrator as a drumstick and beats on her hand drum while singing a song so powerful that all the children in the ward hear it and respond inwardly, and their own child opens his eyes to live again. The medicine that has returned him from the grave is a potent blend of creative forces, brought together in this case by his Indian heritage in his mother’s song.
These stories are characterized by a ebullient humor which often involves sex. Corliss, the central character of “Search Engine,” is started on her journey to find Atwater by watching a fellow student try to seduce a young woman in the student center. In “Flight Patterns,” William’s lovemaking with his wife is simultaneously funny and romantic. The title character of “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks About” is a sexually liberated woman who gives her son endless advice about women and sex. (Part of her advice is that women are aroused at the sight of a man running a vacuum cleaner.)
Much of the rest of the stories’ humor rises from Alexie’s ironic view of American Indians’ place, both in the white world and on the reservation. Always, his characters are conscious of the endless chain formed by the racist ways of white institutions joined with a degree of American Indians’ complicity in their own repression and, in turn, linked to stereotypes held by whites, even when those stereotypes are not negative.
One of the commonest of stereotypes concerns the drunken Indian, the subject of one of this volume’s most appealing stories, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” It is the only story to use characters based on this stereotype. Jackson, the narrator, is a homeless man whose life in the urban United States disintegrated when his mental health cracked. Now he is a moderately successful panhandler who manages to collect enough money to support his alcoholism. The story opens as he and his friends pass a pawnshop and he recognizes his grandmother’s beaded dancing regalia, stolen from her some fifty years before (the narrator had seen it only in photographs). The pawnshop owner agrees to sell it to Jackson for nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars, an amount of money he has not seen for years but now must produce within twenty-four hours.
The rest of the story concerns his efforts to find the money. His first step is to use his last bit of money to buy liquor in the hope that it will inspire some ideas about finding more; instead it makes him and his friends dead drunk for an hour or so. He tries to borrow money from some Aleuts who have been sitting on the wharf for eleven years, waiting for their boat to take them back to Alaska. Jackson also tries selling newspapers. He wins a hundred dollars on the lottery but spends that money in a bar, buying drinks for other Indians (and himself). As he sobers up, he manages to talk a sympathetic cop into loaning him thirty dollars instead of forcing him to go to detox. He returns to the Aleuts and sings tribal songs with them for two hours; then he spends twenty-five dollars buying them breakfast. At last he returns to the pawnshop with the remaining five dollars, and the pawnbroker gives him the regalia. As the story ends, Jackson is wearing the regalia and dancing in a city intersection: “Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing.”
Several stories in the collection nod at the tradition of American Indians as passionate basketball players. In “What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church?” the title character comes to a midlife crisis that leads him to try to regain his lost abilities on the basketball court. After a heart attack, intense training, and some time in a mental hospital, he enrolls in a community college in the hope that, at the age of forty-one, he can play for the school’s team. That is impossible, as he learns, but not before he has made a heroic effort and has successfully shown the school’s star players his amazing skills in a tribute to his dead parents.
Although some of the stories in this collection lose their narrative drive in a welter of satiric detail, they all offer insights into a world of people—white, brown, and red—whom Alexie clearly loves and whom he treats with dignity even as he laughs at them. He invites the reader to do the same.
Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life, July/August, 2003, p. 179.
Booklist 99, no. 16 (April 15, 2003): 1426-1427.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 8 (April 15, 2003): 548.
Library Journal 128, no. 9 (May 15, 2003): 129-130.
The New York Times, May 26, 2003, p. E10.
The New York Times Book Reviews, June 15, 2003, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 18 (May 5, 2003): 198.